“And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
Over the period 1970 to 2010, world population has doubled but not farmland. The current population of 7.4 billion is forecast to increase to 9.6 billion by 2050. Challenges to agricultural production and productivity to not only meet food needs of the rising population but also raw materials for industrial production (e.g. cotton for textiles) is palpable. The added pressure from climate change negating yield gains is worrying. The mix of increased levels of carbon dioxide, changes in temperature and precipitation increasingly breaching extremes and changing patterns of crop diseases and pests adds uncertainties around crop production that will have to be addressed.
In the USA, one farmer produced enough food for 19 people in 1940, rising to 73 people in 1973 and 155 people in 20101. Corn yields averaged 2.44 t/ha in 1950, rising to 9.60 t/ha in 2000. Progress in plant breeding in particular, has arguably been the engine of growth in productivity supported by improvements in crop management and mechanization.
Gregor Mendel (1822-84), in his studies with pea plants, set the scene for science of breeding through his observations on genetic inheritance. The foundation of today’s crop breeding which started the Green Revolution, was heralded by Norman Borlaug and his colleagues working in Mexico. They were able to introduce dwarfing genes into wheat to produce new cultivars with much higher yield potential and greater response to fertilizer than traditional cultivars.
Figure 1. Impact of plant breeding on development of productive sugar beet cultivars
On 6th September ’16, SESVanderHave opened a 13,000 m2 sugar beet breeding centre in Belgium. The celebration of plant breeding innovation that has informed yield gains over the past hundred years or so was documented and highlighted by two excellent speakers. Helene Lucas from INRA (the French Institute of Agricultural Research) pointed out how understanding of genetics and development of techniques have supported plant breeding which has seen beet sugar yields increase from 2 tonnes/ha in 1870s to over 16 tonnes today (figure 1). She noted that the introduction of genome editing technology is opening up new opportunities as this has increased selection efficiency. Garlich von Essen from European Seed Association highlighted wide ranging benefits that have been accrued from the introduction of productive cultivars. Over the past few decades, yield growth rate of sugar beet was highest among crops at 2.46% in the European Union (table 1). The share of plant breeding innovation supporting productivity gains in EU agriculture was in the range 50% (sugar beet, pulses) – 80% (wheat, oilseed rape) (figure 2). Since 2000, Essen pointed out, “plant breeding alone has enabled EU farmers to produce enough extra calories to feed at least 160 million people.” Further, plant breeding has contributed more than €14.5 billion to EU GDP (gross domestic product) over the last 15 years, as well as fostering an additional annual income of some €7000 for 1.2 million farm workers. Without plant breeding, Europe would need additional 19 million hectares to produce the same amount of food.
Table 1. Yield developments of arable crops in the EU
Yield growth rate % per year
Source: HFFA Research GmbH
Remarkable progress in information technologies transforming daily interactions not only in the world of work continues to steal the limelight. Pause and reflect on the equally remarkable progress in plant breeding that has continued to ensure that agricultural productivity keeps pace with the demand from rising population from the same farmland.
Figure 2. Share of plant breeding innovation in productivity growth of arable crops in EU
Source: HFFA Research GmbH (2016)