Scotland’s rural research institutes are supporting Scotland’s health and economy
More than 95 per cent of the British blackcurrant crop and 50 per cent of the global crop are varieties bred at the James Hutton Institute where there have been blackcurrant programmes since the 1960s. All the varieties bred at the institute are prefixed ‘Ben’ after Dr Rex Brennan, who leads the blackcurrant breeding programme.
Institute chief executive, Professor Iain Gordon, told delegates: “As you may know, Dundee is famous for the three Js: Jam, Jute and Journalism. The association between Dundee and jam goes back to 1797 when Janet Keiller invented marmalade and laid the foundations for a business manufacturing not only marmalade, but a range of jams using locally-grown soft fruit including blackcurrants.
“This tradition continues today through Mackays, one of the sponsors of this conference and whose factory some of you will be visiting. Blackcurrants have been grown in the UK for about 500 years and for at least 100 years in the Dundee area. The long, mild summer days combined with cold winters and fertile soils make this part of Scotland ideal for soft fruit production.
“However, it was in the 1970s when our predecessor, the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI), released the variety Ben Lomond that Dundee’s place in the blackcurrant world was established. This was further enhanced in the 1980s when Beechams, now GlaxoSmithKline, first came to the institute to fund blackcurrant breeding for their iconic brand, Ribena.
“This programme has continued uninterrupted to the present day and has resulted in the release of 14 new varieties that now account for an estimated 50 per cent of the global blackcurrant market.
“The James Hutton Institute was established in April 2011 through a merger between SCRI and the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen. The remit of the institute is to address the global issues of food, energy and water security as well as developing solutions to enable us to adapt to climate change.
“Despite the name change and the broader focus, we still remain committed to retaining our position as the world’s leading research centre for Rubus and Ribes. Indeed, the multidisciplinary research teams that we now operate will increase the opportunity to add new dimensions to the blackcurrant breeding programme led by Dr Rex Brennan.
“We are confident that we will continue to deliver new varieties that meet the demands of our customers in an ever-changing world.” The conference heard from Dr Brennan on how he is using knowledge of the blackcurrant genome to improve the efficiency of the breeding programme, not only for processing varieties but also for the fresh market through the institute’s association with Winterwood Farms.
It also heard from Professor Derek Stewart, who is looking at how blackcurrants can be used to treat a wide range of medical conditions including Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
In addition, speakers from Poland, New Zealand, Norway and England contributed to the conference programme. Delegates visited the institute to meet its scientists and asked more detailed questions about the groundbreaking research it is undertaking, funded by the Scottish Government.
Meanwhile, scientists are to investigate whether oats and barley grown in the northern UK are better at protecting the body against heart disease than those from the south. They will examine whether colder temperatures boost the amount of cholesterol-lowering lipids in the crops.
The five-year study will also look at whether ancient varieties of the crops are more nutritional than modern ones.
Experts at the University of Aberdeen will compare oats and barley grown in Orkney with the same varieties grown in Dundee and Aberystwyth in Wales, to look at the effects of the growing environment.
Dr Karen Scott, from the university’s Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, said: “We believe that the colder temperatures experienced in more northerly parts of the UK may enhance the nutritional values in oats and barley.
“The reasoning behind this is linked to molecules called lipids which these crops contain more of than other cereals. These molecules become saturated or unsaturated during the growth cycle, depending on the conditions in which the crops are grown.
“More unsaturated lipids are formed when colder temperatures prevail, conditions commonly found in more northerly areas, whilst more saturated lipids form under warmer conditions, typically found further south in the UK.
“Having more unsaturated lipids in our foods is better for the health as, when ingested, these lipids lower levels of the bad cholesterol in our bodies, which otherwise could lead to the development of cardiovascular disease.’’ Different varieties of the crops, particularly ancient strains of oats and barley, may offer their own health benefits.
Some of the nutrition in oats and barley may have been bred out amid the industrial revolution when the farming industry focused on getting the greatest yield from crops.
Dr Scott said this led to a preference for crops that yielded well and ripened early so they could be taken off the land before bad weather hit.
“We will be growing varieties of oats and barley, commonly found on our fields over 100 years ago but very rarely now, to compare the health benefits of these crops with more modern variations, to understand if their nutritional values differ,’’ she said.
The study is part of several Scottish Governmentfunded projects at the Rowett Institute investigating the potential health benefits of Scottish produce.
This research is in a project also involving experts from the University of Aberdeen, the University of the Highlands and Islands and the James Hutton Institute.