Plant breeding: a key technology in the bioeconomy

An article by Dr Gunhild Leckband, CEO of NPZ Innovation GmbH

Establishing a bioeconomy may allow us to find solutions to a whole host of global challenges: climate change first and foremost, but also global nutrition, the finite nature of fossil fuel sources, and not least sustainable farming methods.

The bioeconomy involves an entirely new and fully sustainable approach to production and management. It is based on renewable basic materials known collectively as biomass: this refers to all the organic substance that is produced by plant photosynthesis, that is to say the ability of plants to use sunlight to convert water and the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere into sugar.

In the plant, this sugar is then further converted into the whole spectrum of organic substances and materials: from starch, cellulose and wood to proteins, fats, oils, vitamins, anti-oxidants, pigments and tannins. For a bioeconomy to be successful, all its various branches need to be considered. Food is always the top priority, but fodder for animals, raw materials for fabrics and materials for generating energy are also important.

Considerably more higher quality biomass will need to be made available if fossil-based raw materials are to be completely replaced in fabrics production while at the same time ensuring the necessary supply of food. In other words, we need to massively step up plant production, and of course do so in a sustainable manner. This demands a modern, future-oriented and efficient form of agriculture that will be appropriately valued by the public and for which sensible and practical framework conditions are established.

Many aspects and principles of organic farming, e.g. multiple crop rotation and attempts to achieved closed circuits, make good sense and should be incorporated into concepts aimed at modernising agriculture. However, organic farming alone is unable to generate the required quantities of biomass. Furthermore, the excessive priority currently given to natural conservation runs contrary to the changes that are necessary if we are to solve our most pressing problems. We need a broad-based discussion in society about how much natural

conservation is really necessary and reasonable – and that involves more than simply calling for ever greater protection of nature.

To achieve this huge expansion of sustainable plant production, we need plants that are optimally adapted to the requirements of extreme environmental conditions and climate change and that are able to produce higher and more stable yields at reduced input.

Plant breeders have been producing cultivated plants with all kinds of improvements for over 100 years. One of their objectives is to enable the results of the knowledge revolution in biology to be used to cultivate new, further enhanced plant varieties. The plant breeding industry in Germany, which is characterised by small and medium-sized companies, is ready and well-prepared to achieve this. For this to happen, however, practical framework conditions are needed, including for example the use of modern methods such as genetic engineering, the safety of which has been demonstrated over decades and on millions of hectares of arable land.

A broad-based discussion in society that encompasses all the various basic ideas, convictions and arguments is also necessary here. This discourse should be conducted in an objective manner on the basis of knowledge and scientific findings, and should result in priorities being set and balanced compromises being found, and should ultimately lead to what will hopefully be a widely accepted agreement. Our society’s ability to engage in discussion and accept compromises will determine whether we are able to overcome the great challenges of the future. Prejudice, technophobia, the gesture politics that can often be observed, and indeed a lazy reluctance to accept change will not help. And this applies to everyone involved.

Dr Gunhild Leckband has headed the Research Management and Patents department at NPZ, Hohenlieth, since August 1998, where she became a shareholder in July 2000. She has been the managing partner of NPZ Innovation GmbH since November 2013. In January 2018 she took over as head of Breeding at Norddeutsche Pflanzenzucht Hans-Georg Lembke KG.