How advances in plant breeding are helping to improve food security

October 1, 2020

Hunger is one of the most important problems humanity is facing today. In April 2020, with the planet already suffering from the health and economic issues caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations World Food Program published the Global Report on Food Crises stating that worldwide there are 821 million people who go hungry (chronically) and 135 million who are on the verge of dying of hunger. Talking about the report, the head of the World Food Program stated that “due to the Coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020.  That’s a total of 265 million people.”

Given the current global situation, food scarcity in undeveloped countries is expected to rise, due to low yield crops, climate change, and supply chain shortages. Tackling this problem is more important than ever. To do so we need to generate innovative solutions – that not only cover the food needs of the population, but also look after the planet’s renewable, and nonrenewable resources, as well as its biological diversity. By doing so we can improve people’s quality of life in terms of food, habitability, and general well-being.

One of the approaches to deal with these challenges has been known for more than 10,000 years. That is “selective breeding” which consists of choosing cultivars to accumulate in a single individual, population or variety, thus emphasizing the most favorable hereditary value for a certain production or trait. Individuals that manifest the trait also transmit it to their future offspring, thus increasing the characteristic in successive generations.

Throughout the history of mankind, domestic varieties of wheat, corn, rice, soybeans (to name a few) have been obtained. Of the first two, one notable change with respect to their wild varieties is that they have more than one copy of the DNA of their species per individual – corn has two or four copies, while wheat has four or six copies depending on the variety. These increased copies of the genome were generated by crossing cultivated and wild varieties, or with other cultivated ones. It’s a process that used to take more than a generation to be successful. But with current technologies, modern plant breeding dramatically accelerates the time needed, using techniques of screening, selection and reproduction, which can be carried out in a few years.

How does plant breeding work?

The selection process is shortened as researchers can quickly determine which individuals have the desired characteristics (screening). They can then cross these plants with each other or with others that have another wanted genotypic trait (the set of characteristics that are present in the DNA of a living being), creating new hybrids that contain properties of both parents. This procedure is carried out several times until the desired genotype is fixed in all the offspring.

As an example of plant breeding researchers are currently examining peanuts to try to improve their yield, resistance to pests, climatic resilience and response to other ecological challenges, for environments as diverse as the humid tropical climate of Haiti or conditions with very low water availability, such as in Senegal.

Work is also under way in East African countries to produce varieties of beans that take 30% less time to cook and also have 10% more zinc and 15% more iron. These improvements in cooking time allow a highly nutritious food to be seen by a low income household as an acceptable food source. This is because in countries where there is malnutrition and famine, the fuels (usually charcoal or firewood) necessary for cooking are also scarce. The boiling time of a common bean without improvements can take one up to two hours, consuming high quantities of precious fuel and water to prepare a single meal.

To make these new crop varieties, scientists collect samples of cultivated and wild varieties of the same plant species, thereby generating gene banks. These banks are very useful, not only to create new varieties, but also to encourage the use of existing types that are more suitable for a particular area and also to preserve the biological diversity of our planet. Within the bank, the characteristics of each species are listed, allowing the easy selection of those who have the desired traits that researchers want to be present in the new variety. After selection, scientists proceed to the generation of hybrids.

How Globant’s Life Sciences studio is helping plant breeders

Here at Globant, our Life Sciences studio has been working on selection methods based on genotypic and phenotypic information for plant breeding programs. The first example relates to the implementation of the Coefficient of Parentage, which basically allows breeders to use a genetic diversity index for their selection process. This way they ensure healthy diversity – maximizing desired traits in the new generations, while keeping endogamy (or inbreeding) problems at check. To calculate this index, we created a cloud-based algorithm that evaluates the pedigree plants. It is based on the Mendelian Laws of inheritance, as well as best practices on crossing plants based on their genealogy.

In the same line of work, we are developing another set of algorithms to recommend breeders which plant varieties they should cross in order to maximize the chances for the offspring to express desirable traits. This method is based on genotypic markers, including the ones tied to a phenotype, anonymous markers, and phenotypic information from measurements made in the field

Conclusion: Plant breeding is a highly effective method to fight hunger

Plant breeding is a highly useful and effective method to face the challenge of fighting hunger in a sustainable way. Scientists are working hard to make new plant varieties so farmers and growers can access better suited produce and crops that have a higher yield, grow faster, are fit for the local climate and soil conditions, and also withstand climate changes. This gives small farm growers a way to increase their earnings, access nutritious food and enjoy a better quality of life. In my next article I will explore the role that remote sensing and satellite imaging products are playing in helping to improve crop performance

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There is no Planet B. We all need to commit to this cause, for this generation and the ones to come. We have always believed sustainable practices to be key in our development: we have engaged in practices for lowering energy consumption and reducing disposable waste. While we reduce our carbon footprint through science-based targets, we are going to compensate for all remaining emissions.