Research shows the world will need to produce 69 percent more food in 2050 than in 2006 to meet the needs of a growing population. In fact, without significantly changing consumption patterns or expanding agricultural lands, crop yields will need to grow 33 percent more in the next 44 years than they did in the past 44 years.
Most people are quick to think of genetically modified crops as the best way to produce more food per hectare. Our research, however, points to a decidedly more old-school “GM” to increase crop yields: Gregor Mendel.
Mendel gave birth to genetics by crossbreeding closely related species of garden peas. The World Resources Institute’s new research paper finds that using the modern advances of genetics—such as DNA mapping—offers a great opportunity to increase crop yields while also protecting the environment.
Gregor Mendel, catapulted into the 21st century
Genetic modification involves inserting specific genes—often from a different species—into the genomes of a plant to create a more desirable result, such as herbicide-resistant soybeans. GM technology works well for plant traits controlled by a single or a small number of genes. Yet most traits that lead to higher crop yields result from a large number of genes and their interactions with environmental factors. It’s only through conventional methods that breeders currently can affect such a large number of genes. That’s why conventional breeding has been and will probably continue to be the dominant means of increasing crop yields for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, recent technological advances can assist conventional breeders in accelerating crop yield gains. Marker-assisted breeding involves mapping portions of plant DNA associated with useful traits, such as producing larger edible plant parts. Mapping makes it possible to screen a large population of seedlings quickly to determine which have the desired gene combinations without having to sow millions of seeds or wait for individual plants to grow, thereby realizing yield improvements more quickly.
For example, the International Rice Research Institute identified a genetic marker in rice, allowing it to tolerate underwater submersion during floods. Three years later, IRRI developed a variety of flood-tolerant rice using marker-assisted breeding and at least 10 varieties are now available in South and Southeast Asia, which are prone to monsoon flooding.
Another advance is genomics-assisted breeding, which maps 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, such as faster growth or resistance to acidic soils, thereby saving research time and enabling breeders to screen for plants that have the best traits.
Orphan crops: Another solution to increase crop yields
While these technological advancements focus on how to breed crops, another opportunity lies in what to breed. Many crop species have received relatively little research, typically because they’re grown mainly in poor countries or are not widely traded on global markets—the so-called “orphan crops.” These include various forms of potatoes, peas, beans, cassava and more. Yet these are important food sources for many people, especially in food-insecure regions. The marginal yield improvement potential of such crops is high given limited research efforts thus far, so it’s important to pay greater attention to breeding them.
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.
Increase and stabilize crop breeding budgets. Public funding for agricultural research has grown recently, but it is still only $30 billion per year. 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.
Leverage new technologies. Marker- and genomics-assisted breeding methods for mapping portions of plant DNA and complete genomes have become fast and relatively cheap. At a minimum, they offer hope for reducing the time necessary for conventional breeding of relatively simple traits.
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 from research institutions and donors.
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.
Share DNA mapping data. Universities, government agriculture research centers and the private sector could accelerate yield enhancements by more aggressively sharing genomic data with other researchers in the “public commons.” The Genome Online Database is designed for such a purpose. Making such foundational information widely available would enable more researchers to work on identifying improvements.
Although crop breeding has always been critical for feeding the planet, its importance has grown even more because yields need to grow even faster than in the past and because we can no longer boost yields just by dousing crops with more chemicals. Boosting yields through advances in conventional breeding and orphan crops is a critical item on the menu for securing a sustainable food future.