SciTech welcomes Marco Ferroni from CGIAR, to discuss how innovating crop breeding could be a solution to the current climate and food shortage crisis.
Crop breeding was used as the key tool in the Green Revolution of the 1960s, where it focused on the task of improving the yields of three crops to save billions from starvation.
Now, we need over 20 staple foodstuffs to help meet an even broader set of asks for even more people, globally, while delivering on the world’s Sustainable Development Goals. These are far more nuanced today and include tackling malnutrition, improving livelihoods and preserving our agricultural and natural landscapes.
At the same time, we need to ensure that products meet consumer demands and that up-to-date crops and better practices can deal with the onslaught of threats posed by the climate crisis. This includes the rapid influx of pests and disease, prolonged droughts and heavier periods of rain.
Taking action means transforming current crop breeding processes by making the world’s staple crops more responsive to the different threats and opportunities to come.
This is why initiatives like Crops to End Hunger are so important. Launched by CGIAR, it is tailored much more to the specific interests of consumers and the needs of farmers across the developing world.
The aim is to respond directly to the conditions of diverse regions, climates and cultures – essentially creating “demand-driven” crops. Do they need to be drought-tolerant? Do they need to be insect-resistant? Do they need to withstand salinity in soil? Essentially, what are the local market demands that will allow these crops to be purchased on a large scale?
For farmers, any seed that provides more or higher-quality food, leads to greater income or has the ability to resist adverse climatic conditions, is a seed with superpowers. Our primary goal must be to produce these seeds year on year and to ensure that farmers actually make use of them in their fields.
Some game-changing research priorities could fundamentally reshape how crops are grown. Improving how crops carry out photosynthesis, for instance, would enhance their innate ability to absorb and process sunlight into energy, improving potential yields.
Likewise, crop breeding is made possible in large part because of efforts made to conserve the world’s biodiversity: it is the “pool” from which we can draw upon for new traits, now and in the future.
That is why the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has worked to collect, conserve and prepare the wild relatives of 29 of the world’s staple crops to adapt to extreme weather changes.
These so-called “wild relatives” are similar to the crops we eat on a daily basis, but possess some of the key traits that will make our crops more resilient under changing weather conditions and other stresses.
Take the eggplant. It has two other known species apart from the brinjal eggplant most widely consumed today. Collecting and preserving its “cousins” will help build its resistance to pests and diseases, improve nutritional content and enhance overall quality.
Yet, none of this is possible without an understanding of market needs, and this is crucial in low to middle income countries, where farmers face complex challenges and seed systems are far less developed.
That is why investments in product management are important. Akin to market research, this approach will connect the right seeds to customer needs with the help of product managers who can understand local seed systems and guide the process to create more successful varieties.
Developing the orange-fleshed sweet potato, for example, required researchers from the International Potato Center to engage with local farmers through regional hubs.
From this, researchers could better appreciate what traits were important for local communities, taking into account issues like nutrient deficiencies and threats from weevils and other insect pests. More than 130 varieties have been developed since, each individually tailored to meet the complex needs of rural households across Africa and Asia.
And whilst crop breeding has already proven successful, much of the technologies driving these successes have been confined to the private sector. It is the goal of the initiative to invest in the right innovations that will unlock this potential within CGIAR, the largest public agricultural innovation network with a global reach.
These innovations include genomic selection, which can improve the level of accuracy when scientists cross genes to create new ones, and better field sensors to understand how these new crops will perform under real-world conditions.
It is essential that we harness these types of global innovations to ensure we are meeting the needs of the poor whilst also minimising the impact on the environment.
No wonder, then, that the Global Commission on Adaptation called to double funding for CGIAR’s agricultural research in its latest report. The sector urgently needs more funding to accomplish this ambitious agenda and donors are already starting to heed this call – but far more needs to be done.