A continuous and rapid growth of world population with increasing demands on high value nutrition and varied diets encounters a growing scarcity of natural resources.
Additional challenges like climate change and growing pest and disease pressure exacerbate the need for an agri-food chain that achieves more output with a reduced input. But is this possible?
Yes, it is.
Gregor Mendel discovered the biological rules in relation to the inheritance of traits in plants at the end of the 19th century. His discovery marked a fundamental change in the 'rules of the game' with regard to crop improvement and, ultimately, the set-up of modern economies and societies.
At the end of the 1800s, we had some 2 billion people on the planet. The vast majority of them worked in and around agriculture. Farmers, more or less, randomly selected what they believed to be the best seed from their harvests for the next sowing. With that, crop yields improved only very slowly and at incremental rates.
This forced a vast part of the population to remain in an agricultural, food producing environment - which also limited the development of other economic sectors and slowed down the modernisation of societies.
Mendel's discoveries changed that by enabling a sophisticated, science-based plant breeding sector to develop that supplied farmers with more efficient new plant varieties for an ever broader range of markets and uses. Crop yields doubled and tripled within decades, instead of centuries. And ultimately, this freed the human resources needed for the further development of other, industrial sectors of the economy.
The fundamental change from predominantly rural, pre-industrial and more or less local communities to our modern, highly differentiated and increasingly global and integrated society is foremost based on one thing: our understanding how to breed better plants that can feed more people.
Today, we are still facing the same challenge - how to feed more and more people? How to feed 10 billion in 2050? How to feed them while preserving our environment and our natural resources? Again, the answer is by plant breeding.
Over the past 100 years, we have continuously gained more scientific knowledge and understanding of how our plants work, how they reproduce, how they deal with pests and diseases, how they endure stress and develop tolerances and much more.
"This growing toolbox is essential for our future success and the EU must do what it can to support the development and deployment of innovations in, first, plant breeding and then commercial farming"
And we have learned many new techniques and developed more and more new tools how to influence, target and speed up these processes. This growing toolbox is essential for our future success and the EU must do what it can to support the development and deployment of innovations in, first, plant breeding and then commercial farming. In a recent report, the European parliament underlined this importance and called for a strengthening of Europe's efforts in plant breeding.
But what should the EU do?
Firstly, it should re-focus and increase its research and development support for the sector, including for public-private partnerships. But the EU's main support is not about money. Most importantly, the EU must provide a regulatory and political framework in which innovations can thrive.
Overregulation and legal uncertainty are major stumbling blocks, in particular for a sector that is still characterised by many smaller and medium sized companies. Specifically for these, lengthy, costly and inconsequential assessment and authorisation procedures are unaffordable while larger companies might re-locate research activities to countries outside Europe. Plant breeders on average invest around 15 per cent of their turnover in the development of new products.
And even the most sophisticated breeding programmes take many years until the final, new variety is ready for the market. Breeders therefore must know today what rules apply to their products and to the technologies and tools they use in their development.
Most of these either simply allow breeding to become more targeted and more precise, others help to multiply, replicate and speed up processes or analyses. They are neither witchcraft nor trial and error. They are based on growing scientific knowledge and technological capacity. Their application should be promoted, not hindered.
Finally, the EU must do a lot more and a lot better in its advocacy of modern plant breeding towards the wider public. Currently, communication often seems to focus solely on precaution or potential hazards of new techniques or products, suggesting that plant breeding innovations pose a very particular risk. This misperception must be addressed.
Plant breeding has a proven and impeccable track record and its products supply more people than ever before with healthy and affordable food. To continue this success story, Europe must take the right decisions. And it must take them now.
Promoting plant breeding innovation with supportive policies, enabling rules and a strong, positive outreach towards the public is probably one of the best investments in our own future.