Plant breeding essential to meet global food needs – NIAB

2 Oct 2008

The challenge for 21st century agriculture is to double food production over the next 40 years, on a finite amount of land and using increasingly scarce and costly resources.

Advances in plant breeding will be the single biggest factor in meeting this increased demand, and significant opportunities exist - using both conventional and transgenic approaches – to boost crop productivity.  Exploiting these opportunities, however, will require a step-change in public sector investment in the translational research and infrastructure needed to support innovative plant breeding.

That was the central message delivered by the National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in its submission to a major inquiry by the Royal Society into how to enhance food-crop production.

“Both in the developed and developing world, crop improvement through plant breeding will be the major contributor to increased food production for the indefinite future,” said Professor Andy Greenland, Research Director at NIAB.  “Yields of winter wheat in the UK, for example, have increased three-fold since 1947. NIAB research has shown that, between 1947 and 1982, about half of the yield gain could be attributed to plant breeding as opposed to other factors such as improved agronomy, machinery or inputs. Since 1982, however, the contribution of plant breeding to yield gain has increased to more than 90%.”

“There is scope to deliver continued incremental improvements in plant breeding, for example through more routine use of marker-assisted selection to reduce the breeding cycle time.  Advances in our basic knowledge of plant genetics are also opening up major opportunities for radical, dimension-changing developments in plant breeding.

“Improved understanding of the photosynthetic process, for example, could allow conversion of C3 crop species such as wheat and rice into more productive C4 crops such as maize. The development of apomictic crops – allowing asexual reproduction through seed - would enable desirable traits to be maintained year after year, with no loss of hybrid vigour.”

But Professor Greenland warned that exploiting these opportunities would require a fundamental shift in research funding. 

“The UK has progressively cut public sector investment in applied agricultural research and knowledge transfer in favour of a market-based approach. But it is clear that the income from commercial plant breeding – through royalty payments on seed – is not enough to support a more speculative, long-term approach to R&D.  There is a hiatus in the research pipeline. While our research institutes and universities remain world-leaders in basic plant science, much of that work is taking place in model crop species without being transferred to potentially useful crops. 

“Working in partnership with these organisations, NIAB has the scientific skills and agricultural expertise to translate advances in basic plant science into genetic backgrounds and material which will be of use to commercial plant breeders.  Our submission to the Royal Society calls for greater long-term, strategic investment in applied research and knowledge transfer, especially translational work of the kind taking place at NIAB to transform basic plant science into innovative products of value to farmers and consumers,” said Professor Greenland.

Issued by: Daniel Pearsall, Front Foot Communications
T: 01487 831425
E: daniel.pearsall [at] () 

Further information is available from Professor Andy Greenland