Three developments are dramatically changing the process of crop improvement:
- There's been a phenomenal increase in speed and decrease in cost of DNA sequencing.
- Targeted editing of one or a limited number of specific genes can be used to improve traits without otherwise altering the genome.
- DNA sequence information from across the entire genome is being used to dramatically speed the pace of plant breeding.
Agriculture and global food security will benefit most from these new technologies under the following scenarios:
- They are applied with highest priority to the 3 major food crops of the world — maize, wheat, and rice — by both public and private sector efforts
- Relatively fast and simple gene editing can be adapted to address traits such as disease resistance or micronutrient deficiencies that are most important to the developing world — and not economically attractive as targets for the private sector.
- A globally-accepted, science-based regulatory system should be adopted that facilitates, rather than hinders, safe use of such new technologies
Bottom line: We have the tools to improve crops but also need wise management of water resources and soil fertility, along with appropriately optimizing farm sizes, land tenure, and access to markets. These will be just as important as advances in crop improvement.
Other voices in the conversation:
Pamela Ronald, plant geneticist, UC Davis, Focus on results new technologies bring
Henk Hobbelink, agronomist, GRAIN, Support small farmers
Eric Schulze, molecular biologist, Memphis Meats, Science can't be at the expense of culture