Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 March 2007
Genealogical data have been used very widely to construct indices with which to examine the contribution of plant breeding programmes to the maintenance and enhancement of genetic resources. In this paper we use such indices to examine changes in the genetic diversity of the winter wheat crop in England and Wales between 1923 and 1995. We find that, except for one period characterized by the dominance of imported varieties, the genetic diversity of the winter wheat crop has been remarkably stable. This agrees with many studies of plant breeding programmes elsewhere. However, underlying the stability of the winter wheat crop is accelerating varietal turnover without any significant diversification of the genetic resources used. Moreover, the changes we observe are more directly attributable to changes in the varietal shares of the area under winter wheat than to the genealogical relationship between the varieties sown. We argue, therefore, that while genealogical indices reflect how well plant breeders have retained and exploited the resources with which they started, these indices suffer from a critical limitation. They do not reflect the proportion of the available range of genetic resources which has been effectively utilized in the breeding programme: complex crosses of a given set of varieties can yield high indices, and yet disguise the loss (or non-utilization) of a large proportion of the available genetic diversity.