The Art of Throwing Things Away

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Mutation is the source of all life. Without mutation, mankind would not exist. Starting from the first unicellular organism, mutation has created all the different plant and animal species and within each of those species a lot of diversity. Plant breeders use this diversity to create all those wonderful new plant varieties that we so desperately need to provide sufficient and nutritious food for all.

Without diversity there can be no plant breeding. Plant breeding is the art and science of changing the traits of plants to produce desired characteristics, beneficial to mankind. And this is accomplished with the help of many different techniques ranging from simply selecting plants with desirable characteristics for propagation, to more complex molecular techniques. But to select something that is better than what was there, diversity is necessary. So, plant breeders use and create diversity on an ongoing basis.

They do this mainly by crossing plants and subsequently selecting among the offspring, and often with the help of a whole range of different techniques, such as inducing mutations and introducing different genetic traits through special techniques. Plant breeders have to cope with a great diversity of genetic characters determining yield, quality and a whole number of other breeding targets of the crop. Making the right choices is critical, as with an increasing number of traits to select for, the time and plant material that is required also increases.

At the same time, with increasing traits, the response to selection is likely to decrease. And it does not end there. Within many crops, there are different uses. A wheat variety that is perfect for making bread may not be suitable for pastry. The plant breeder has to keep many different quality objectives in mind. Once the variation is created, the plant breeder is then confronted with a wide array of diversity and is challenged to select the right plants with which to continue within each of the different breeding programs.

My professor of plant breeding used to say: “Plant breeding is the art of throwing away!” For a plant breeder to decide what can be thrown away, a constant stream of information is needed about consumer preferences with the aim of identifying the relevant genetic traits, to quantify their economic importance and adjust breeding objectives if necessary.

“Plant breeders have to make assumptions about what consumers will want 15 to 20 years from now.” 

— Marcel Bruins

Creating a new plant variety takes seven to 12 years, and in certain crops even longer. Plant breeders have to make assumptions about what consumers will want 15 to 20 years from now. He will need to look into his crystal ball and predict what the consumer’s tastes and preferences will be. However, such preferences vary due to changes in income, market supply of food products, information and technology. And these changes happen within a time scale that is far shorter than the time it takes to create a new variety. This requires a constant adjustment of breeding objectives.

But back to diversity: only by creating sufficient diversity and selecting the right plants to go forward can plant breeders develop better seed for a better quality of life, bringing economic, environmental and health benefits. Plant varieties that are resistant to drought and disease guarantee harvest security by reducing the risk of crop failure and thus supporting sustainable agriculture and global food security. When we talk about food security, this is strongly linked to hunger. In Europe and North America most people enjoy sufficient food that is safe, nutritious and affordable.

But this is not always the case in the rest of the world. To get a good impression of the global fight against hunger, take a look at the Global Hunger Index (GHI). Each year, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) calculates GHI scores to assess progress, or the lack thereof, in decreasing hunger. Those who have followed the development of global hunger of the past decades will have noticed that the level of hunger in developing countries as a group has fallen by 27 percent since 2000. In 1990, there were still 17 countries in the “extremely alarming” category; this category disappeared in 2015.

While the world has made progress in reducing hunger, the state of hunger is still “serious” or “alarming” in 52 countries. IFPRI is one of the research centers of the CGIAR Consortium, a worldwide partnership engaged in agricultural research and development. The Consortium has 15 research centers and many research programs. All the major global gene banks are all part of the CGIAR Consortium, and these genebanks are crucial to preserving the genetic diversity in crops.

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