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Molecular Methods for Plant Breeding. The Future for Feeding the World or an Ecological Disaster?

Author: Prof. Wolfgang Nellen

University of Kassel DAAD Quarterly Science

DAAD News letterTalks in Nov 2015 With still rapidly increasing world populations, food supply by agriculture has to increase significantly to feed people and to further decrease world hunger. In western countries, 60% of food loss is caused by consumers while in Africa and South-East Asia 60% pre- and post- harvest losses cause food deficits. This means that improvement in infrastructure, plant breeding and herbicide-/pestmanagement can substantially contribute to food supply and food security in developing countries.

Plant breeding includes improvement of yield, quality of yield, resistances against animal, bacterial, viral and plant pest and plants that can deal with unfavourable conditions (e.g. climate change).

The valuable gene pool of old, traditional crop variants has to be maintained not only for classical genetics but also for genetic material that is becoming more and more important for genetic engineering. The new technology of genome editing allows not only for introducing new traits but also for rapid re-introduction of valuable traits that were  accidentally lost during conventional breeding. Modern cultivars are usually superior to the old, local varieties in terms of yield and quality but they may have lost e.g. disease resistances that are still present in the old cultivars.

In Europe, especially in Germany, so-called “ecological/organic farming” is considered the strong opposite to genetic engineering. “Organic farming” is usually more labour intensive, has lower yields and requires more land. But it may be less damaging to the soil and to ecosystems. Higher prices for so-called “organic products” may result in higher appreciation of food in the developed countries and thus solve the problem of consumer caused losses. However, lower yields will not feed a growing population in developing countries. Traditional agriculture, as proposed by some NGOs (and adopted by non-expert government burocrats) will not solve hunger and malnutrition. On the other hand, huge monocultures will damage ecosystems and soil. It will become absolutely necessary to combine the advantages of modern biotechnology, conventional breeding and the genetic resources of old cultivars to secure food supply and achieve sustainable agriculture.

A challenge of the future will be to break up the seemingly (but not in reality!) incompatible differences between “organic farming” and biotechnology.