Adapting crops to make farming sustainable

Adapting crops to make farming sustainable

Teaser_Plant breeding: a key technology in the bioeconomy

An article by Dr Viktor Korzun and Dr Erhard Ebmeyer, KWS SAAT SE & Co. KGaA

The consequences of climate change, namely drought, higher temperatures and extreme weather events, the increasing restrictions placed on the use of fertilisers and pesticides, and a growing global population are the current and future challenges when it comes to ensuring sustainable agricultural production. The need for action to be taken is considerable at present. The breeding of adapted and resilient crop varieties is one important contribution in this context.
Genetic diversity is vital in plant breeding. It is important to use plant genetic resources because they may contain traits that will prove useful for modern varieties in the climate and growing conditions of the future.
However, it can take a very long time, in some cases even decades, to take a plant genetic resource that may not be suitable for today’s agricultural methods and turn it into a modern, high-yield variety. Crop research uses innovative methods to help shorten this process and make it more efficient.
“Genome editing” is a blanket term that refers to a number of such innovative modern breeding methods. A more efficient and quicker way of developing new high-yield varieties that are specifically adapted to particular locations, genome editing allows increasing problems due to pest infestation, crop diseases or climate change-induced drought to be combated more effectively. There are various applications in which the edited plants do not differ from those bred in conventional ways. When assessing these new methods of genome editing, a nuanced view needs to be taken so that they can also be used for smaller crop varieties and plant breeding companies.
Plant breeding in practice also relies on academic plant research. It takes time for a new modern technique to be developed and put into practice. One example are genetic markers, i.e. short identifiable DNA sequences that allow the characteristics of individual plants to be predicted. It has taken more than 15 years for the initial research activities to lead to applications in variety development. Today they form an integral part of breeding programmes and increase the precision, efficiency and speed of the entire breeding process.

Other examples of successful plant research include the Plant Biotechnology of the Future (Pflanzenbiotechnologie der Zukunft) and Plant 2030 initiatives funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The structure of the public-private partnership on which the individual research projects are based meant that knowledge could be transferred quickly from academic plant research to the breeding of agricultural crops in practice. Furthermore, young scientists were trained who today are contributing their expertise to the plant breeding companies that employ them.

Modern plant breeding aims to create high-yield and well-adapted crop varieties for sustainable farming with a view to overcoming current and future challenges. Success factors within this process are the use of genetic diversity, the development of innovative breeding methods in plant research and their application in breeding companies that have decades of experience and know-how.

Adapted and high-yield crop varieties are one key to solving many global challenges.