- Plant breeding: A sustainable solution to food insecurity in Africa? - May 5, 2021
- Sustainable food system: the production narrative - July 3, 2020
- Will Africa feed herself by 2050? - May 17, 2020
Known as the man who saved a billion lives from starvation, Norman burlong a plant breeder was born in Iowa, in the United States of America.
Not so long after the completion of his doctoral degree at the University of Minnesota in 1942, he took up an agricultural research position with CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) which is located in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.
As a result of his contributions, Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat production in 1956. By 1963, they had enough to export to other countries. Norman’s breeding varieties were introduced in India also as a result of this, India increased it’s a production from 13 million tons in 1965 to 20 million tons in 1970.
Pakistan too is not left out; she increased her production from 5 million tons in 1965 to 12 million tons in 1970. In China, children from their young age are taught about the successes of Norman burlong. The global proportion of hungry people was reduced from over 50% in the first half of the twentieth century to around 11% today (FAO 2019).
Regarded as the “FATHER OF THE GREEN REVOLUTION” Norman burlong saved billions of lives through his feats in plant breeding
Millions of lives are forever indebted to the contributions of plant breeding; some Asian countries, such as China, had Rice yields grow by 32% and wheat by 51%.
But what then is plant breeding?
Plant breeding according to Wikipedia can simply be defined as the science of changing the traits of plants in order to produce desired quantitative characteristics traits, such as growth, development, adaptation, yield, quality, tolerance, resistance etc.
Plant breeding methods basically are of two formats:
Conventional plant breeding
Since the practice of farming began, eight to ten thousand years ago, farmers have been changing the genetic makeup of the crops they grow. Early farmers selected the best-looking plants and seeds and saved them for the next planting season.
Conventional plant breeding has been going on for hundreds of years and is still commonly used today. Conventional breeding achieved successes by crossing together plants with relevant characteristics and selecting the offspring with the desired combination of characteristics, as a result of particular combinations of genes inherited from the two parents.
Hybridization is the deliberate cross of two genetically different plants from two separate plant populations that tends to create varieties with specific feature traits such as early maturation and high yield, etc.
Modern plant breeding
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in the late 1920s, researchers discovered that they could greatly increase the number of variations or mutations by exposing plants to X-rays and chemicals.
“Mutation breeding” was further developed after World War II, when the techniques of the nuclear age became widely available. Plants were exposed to gamma rays, protons, neutrons, alpha particles, and beta particles to see if these would induce useful mutations. Chemicals, too, such as sodium azide and Ethyl methanesulfonate, were used to cause mutations.
Mutation breeding efforts still continue around the world today.
Of the 2,252 publicly released mutation breeding varieties, almost half have been released during the last 15 years. Examples of plants that have been produced through mutation breeding include wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, soybeans, and onions.
Another modern plant breeding technique is the use of genetic engineering. New characteristics can be introduced into crops using GM (genetic modification) approaches. This however raises the question of when a plant breeder might choose a GM approach versus a conventional approach.
GM can only be used to introduce a new character into a crop if two requirements are met. Firstly, if it is necessary that the characters can be introduced by adding only a small number of genes, and then if it is necessary to know what gene or genes those are. At the time GM technology was invented we didn’t know much about which plant genes do what, which greatly restricted the number of useful applications for GM
Another modern techniques is Speed breeding.
‘Speed breeding’ technology shortens the breeding cycle and accelerates crop research through rapid generation advancement. Speed breeding can be carried out in numerous ways, one of which involves extending the duration of plants’ daily exposure to light, combined with early seed harvest, to cycle quickly from seed to seed, thereby reducing the generation time for some long-day or day-neutral crops.
Speed breeding can be used to achieve up to 6 generations per year for spring wheat (Triticum aestivum), durum wheat (T. durum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), chickpea (Cicer arietinum) and pea (Pisum sativum), and 4 generations for canola (Brassica napus), instead of 2–3 under normal glasshouse condition.
Speed breeding in fully enclosed, controlled-environment growth chambers can accelerate plant development for research purposes, including phenotyping of adult plant traits, mutant studies and transformation.
With an expected 9 billion people by 2050 world, meeting future food demand will be a challenge. Climate change, new disease strains, pest outbreaks poses the greatest challenges to food security in Africa, where the need for pragmatic imminent solutions is needed.
More than 800 million people worldwide are chronically hungry, and 2 billion are micronutrient‐deficient (FAO 2019), of which a larger proportion of this figure has its base in Africa.
Fertile land and water are becoming scarce while the population keeps increasing.
Also, there are a number of other challenges, for example in July 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that the legal regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) apply to all organisms which have been altered using genome editing methods such as CRISPR-Cas (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). This makes it difficult to study, develop and cultivate improved crops which are urgently needed for productive, climate-adapted and more sustainable agriculture.
These are all concerns from the environmental point of view and health related issues. Nevertheless when weighing the pros and cons, one realizes the advantages of plant breeding for Africa and eventually the global population food future far outweigh the seemingly negative aspects, conversely these negatives are still being debated in today’s world.