Plant breeding can help meet food challenges

Written by Marit Paulsen on 23 April 2014 in Feature
Feature

With the world facing food security and climate change challenges, there must be a frank debate on how to provide for a continuously increasing population, writes Marit Paulsen.

I am worried. Over the next 40 years the world's population is expected to increase from seven billion to at least nine billion people. To be able to ensure food supply without compromising our environment, agricultural production will have to increase by 70 per cent during the same time period.

The area available for agricultural production is limited; there is virtually no way to increase it. At the same time we can see how climate change affects our land, with a drier climate in some parts of the world and increased flooding in other parts. This especially affects vegetation, including lost crops and resulting in increased plant diseases.

With my own initiative report on plant breeding: what options to increase quality and yields, recently adopted by the European parliament, I hope to initiate a debate about future plant breeding and what challenges we face regarding food supply and climate change.

"For us in Europe, it is of crucial importance to protect and preserve the local and regional varieties that are made for our climate"

One issue that I am particularly interested in is genetic diversity. The UN's food and agriculture organisation estimates that genetic diversity has declined by 75 per cent during the last hundred years. This is really worrying. It is absolutely decisive for the plant breeding sector to have good genetic variation to be able to preserve and develop new crops and plants. For us in Europe, it is of crucial importance to protect and preserve the local and regional varieties that are made for our climate.

Another example is plant breeding research. I become very sad and disappointed when I see how business after business in the plant breeding sector move their research on future plant breeding techniques to other parts of the world, especially the US. This makes it very difficult for Europe to compete globally and to preserve Europe's genetic and cultural diversity.

It takes on average 10 years to develop a new variety, from the research stage to the finished seed, as well as additional time to trial and commercially propagate that variety. It is therefore of great importance to develop and use new plant breeding techniques which respond to societal and agricultural demands. It is also very important to be open to the technologies available in order to meet European needs and enhance the competitiveness of European plant breeding companies. I am concerned over the commission's delay in assessing new breeding techniques, and the clarification of their regulatory status is urgent.

There are several very successful small and medium enterprises in the plant breeding sector in Europe, but it is not enough. We must win back the research about future plant breeding techniques and, at the same time, support small businesses so that they will get a fair chance to compete on the market and not least contribute to the diversity of our enterprises. The sector needs both small and big businesses to survive.

I hope from the bottom of my heart that we can start discussing these issues and see the whole picture and not merely the small details. Plant breeding research must have access to more long-term financial support and the legislation concerning plant breeding techniques must be adapted to reality. However, the most important thing is that we have to start discussing these issues. Not in 10 years' time, but now, before it's too late.

About the author

Marit Paulsen is parliament's rapporteur on plant breeding: what options to increase quality and yields

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