And improvements in plant breeding have also contributed significantly to wider socio-economic and environmental goals such as improved farm incomes, food price stability, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and conservation of key natural resources such as land, water and biodiversity.
These were some of the findings of a major report, ‘The socio-economic and environmental values of plant breeding’, which looked at the pivotal contribution which plant breeding has made towards sustainable agriculture in the UK and across Europe, which was published yesterday.
The 327-page report, produced by the independent scientific consultancy HFFA Research, highlights the role which crop breeding has played in sustaining the rural sector over the past twenty years – and points to the crucial role it will play in the face of increasing pressures to reduce the use of synthetic pesticide and fertiliser inputs.
Claiming that countering the likely yield reductions of such policies will require even greater investment and innovation in plant breeding the report suggests that access to accelerated plant breeding techniques such as gene editing would be a potential game-changer in closing the expected gap in food production across Europe.
The researchers call on policy-makers to do more to support the development of new and improved seed varieties by strengthening support for early-stage and translational research, ensuring an evidence-based regulatory framework – including for new breeding techniques – and encouraging greater public awareness of the benefits of plant breeding in agriculture and beyond.
The report also highlights that on average across all major EU arable crops, plant breeding accounts for approximately 67% of innovation-induced yield growth, equal to a yield increase of 1.16% per annum.
It also points out that EU arable crop production would have been more than 20% lower in 2020 without the genetic crop improvements delivered by plant breeders since 2000 – meaning the EU would have become a net importer in all major arable crops by 2020, including wheat and other cereals.
On the wider front he report concludes that Plant breeding contributes to global food security, with genetic improvements in the past 20 years assuring additional food availability for 168 million humans at global scale.
And higher yields were also credited with saving almost 4 billion tonnes in direct CO2 emissions over the past 20 years.
Chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), Samantha Brooke, welcomed the report’s findings claiming they were further independent confirmation that continued innovation in plant breeding would be the single most important factor in helping farmers respond to the urgent global challenges of food security, climate change and sustainable development.
She said BSPB would use the report to make the case for a more explicit focus on the policy measures needed to boost investment in the UK-based plant breeding and seeds sectors, from research funding priorities to the development of a more enabling and proportionate regulatory environment for genetic innovation.