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Crop Breeding: Renewing the Global Commitment

Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Installment Seven

Installment 7 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future explores improvements in crop breeding that have the potential to boost yields, including marker-assisted breeding, genomics-assisted breeding, and advancements in less-studied “orphan” crops.

This working paper concludes with a series of recommendations on how to accelerate yield gains through these approaches.

Key Findings

Executive Summary

The world needs to close a 69 percent gap between the crops produced in 2006 and the crops the world is on a course to need by 2050. Assuming the present course
of diets, population growth, and rates of food loss and waste, crop yields will need to grow one third more in the coming 44 years than they did in the previous 44 years to avoid net expansion of harvested cropland. Achieving this yield growth will be a major challenge. Crop yield growth rates have been high since the 1960s, and farmers in many places are already using more than enough water and fertilizer inputs. At the same time, climate change is adding new stress that could lower yields in many agricultural regions.

Breeding crops to produce more food is a core method
of boosting yields. While farmers have been breeding crops since the dawn of agriculture, breeding by scientists became common only during the past century. Much of the public debate about crop breeding over the past few decades has focused on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic modification (GM) involves inserting specific genes—often from a different species—into the genomes of a target plant. This approach differs from conventional plant breeding, which involves crossbreeding variants of closely related species through sexual reproduction. Two GM traits have dominated the market to date: resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, and resistance to some pests through the production of a natural insecticide known as “Bt.”

The benefits and challenges of genetically modified crops have attracted enormous public attention, primarily around four issues: food safety, toxicity and pest resistance, crop yield effects, and shifts in profits and control to major corporations. Although the merits of existing GM crops can be debated, GM technology may offer other useful potential benefits, particularly traits that help crops resist diseases that cannot be addressed by any other means.

Despite the public attention to GM crops, conventional breeding has been and will probably continue to be the dominant means of increasing crop yields for the foreseeable future. Although some ambitious GM research programs are trying to alter complicated gene combinations, GM technology currently aims at traits controlled by a single gene or a small number of genes. Yet most traits that lead to higher yields result from a large number of genes and their interactions with environmental factors. It is through conventional methods that breeders can affect such a large number of genes.

Recent advances in molecular biology are assisting conventional breeding and have the potential to accelerate yield gains. One advance is marker-assisted breeding, which involves mapping portions of plant DNA associated with agronomically useful traits. Mapping makes it possible to screen a large population of seedlings quickly to determine which have the desired gene combinations without having to sow large numbers of seeds or wait for individual plants to grow. This method allows breeders to skip cycles of crossing individuals, thereby realizing yield improvements more quickly. Another advance is genomics-assisted breeding, which applies DNA sequencing and mapping to the complete set of DNA within a single cell of a plant. Genomics holds the promise of unveiling the complex combinations of genes that confer desirable crop traits, thereby enabling breeders to screen for
plants that have them and saving research time. Both marker assistance and genomics work within conventional breeding programs.

As marker assistance and genomics continue to speed up conventional breeding, agricultural researchers should increase attention to crops that have received relatively little research—“orphan crops.” Orphan crops include sorghum, millet, potatoes, peas, and beans, all of which are important food sources for many people in food-insecure regions. The marginal yield improvement potential of such crops is probably high given the limited research efforts to date. Marker assistance and genomics should make it easier to achieve quick yield improvements in these less-studied crops in two ways. First, these technologies can increase the pace of breeding programs. Second, they make it possible for breeders to understand the gene combinations that have already led to yield gains in more intensely studied crops such as maize, rice, and wheat. Breeders can then select for these advantageous gene combinations in the orphan crops to achieve yield gains.

Recommended Actions

The combination of the great need for crop yield growth over coming decades and the availability of new technologies makes a strong case for improving crop breeding. We offer five recommendations to achieve this improvement:

  1. Increase and Stabilize Crop Breeding Budgets. Public funding for agricultural research has grown in recent years, but it is still only $30 billion per year. Increases in private sector research in developed countries help, but marketplace realities limit private sector interest in advancements for many low-profit crops (such as orphan crops) or for noncommercial farming. Realizing the potential of marker-assisted and genomics-assisted conventional breeding, as well as of orphan crops, will require substantially more—and consistent—investment in research and development. We did not uncover a good global analysis of by how much the agricultural R&D should increase, but we recommIncreasend an initial goal of increasing funding in low- and medium-income countries from the current 0.5 percent to 1.0 percent of their agricultural production value.

  2. Leverage New Technologies. Although there is room to debate the merits of the dominant GM crops, genetic engineering may play a useful role right now in helping threatened crops resist disease. Even so, conventional breeding will remain more important because it is better able to handle the complex, multigene traits on which yield growth depends. Now that methods to map portions of plant DNA and complete genomes have become fast and relatively cheap, they offer hope for accelerating conventional breeding improvements and should be embraced by researchers, governments, companies, and civil society.

  3. Increase Research Attention to Orphan Crops. Researchers at universities, government agriculture ministries, agricultural companies, and independent research institutions should build on recent efforts to broaden their scope beyond the most intensely researched crops and give attention to increasing
the yields of orphan crops. Doing so will require additional, dedicated funding by research institutions and donors.

  4. Increase Attention to Environmentally Advantageous Traits. Breeders should complement efforts to boost yields with efforts to breed food crops that use nitrogen more effectively and use less water, and for cover crops that more effectively prevent erosion and sequester carbon. Donors with missions to tackle climate change or improve water security should support research focused on these critical environmental traits.

  5. Share Genomic Advances. Universities, government agricultural research centers, and the private sector could accelerate yield enhancements by more aggressively sharing genomic data and new methods with other researchers in the “public commons.”

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