Agricultural Genomics Can Improve Food Production

A cavalcade of scientists wrote a short review article in the Plant Biotechnology Journal a while back titled ‘Global agricultural intensification during climate change: a role for genomics‘. The article discusses the possible assistance our increased knowledge of genomics could have in increasing food production and adjusting for the effects of climate change.

The recent history of agriculture has focused on selecting crop varieties for food yield, such crops being grown under ideal conditions with high input of nutrients. The authors postulate that this has likely resulted in crops losing their ability to adapt to and grow more efficiently in less than ideal conditions, such as what we are likely to see under climate change.

Three key challenges present themselves if we are to adjust this behaviour competently:

  1. We must begin to identify and focus on crops with resource efficiency and stress tolerance plus good yield;
  2. When efficient crops are identified, the genetics underlying these efficiencies must be identified. When identified, our best crops must be searched to identify whether those same genes remain or have been removed by our selective practices. From this knowledge the crops can be genetically adjusted for greater efficiency;
  3. Current minor crops with equivalent or better nutrition or significant environmental properties compared to the major crops should be identified and developed.

Genomic-based breeding

The first two challenges focus on the use of genomics to identify the genes involved in assisting certain crop varieties to adapt better than others to stresses such as drought-like conditions.

When the genetics underpinning these traits are identified and understood, new crop varieties can be bred and tested, speeding up the identification of those new varieties with the greatest productivity in the less than ideal growing conditions. The continuing advancements in gene sequencing technologies can be used to assist this work and develop our understanding of the genetic sequences and variations that control particular beneficial traits.

The current genomic techniques can aid breeders to make rapid selections between different genetic lines and breed new varieties using genetic variations that may have been all but lost from the crops predominantly grown today.

Broadening the crop base

The authors’ third challenge is to broaden the crop base and see the application of genomics as being particularly useful for this task.

Noting that the major crops already receive considerable investment which usually result in only small gains in productivity, it is believed that the faster and cheaper gene sequencing and testing technology could facilitate significant advances in minor crops and plants not traditionally considered for human consumption. Particularly where the plant under study has similar or better nutritional value than a traditional crop but also has the ability to adapt better to climate change conditions, the potential of sourcing new food is considered significant enough to warrant the investment required.

Conclusion

The search for genetic elements able to confer resistance to an array of environmental stress factors is well under way and we are steadily beginning to appreciate what characteristic will be conferred by a particular gene set. From this perspective, the promise of improving minor crops or finding new crops is exciting.

How the plant breeders cross different lines could cause problems with acceptance. On the one hand, traditional crossing will be generally accepted by the public but is likely to be a slower process than using transgenic methods.

Finally, similar to the eating insects as good causes of protein makes logical sense but can trigger the gag reflex in some parts of the population, so may the thought of eating the fruit or tissue of something previously considered a weed cause a similar reaction.

The idea seems to have little problem, it may be marketing of the final product that will need attention.

Feature image credit: Dean Calma/IAEA Image Bank

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