Between climate change and a rapidly expanding population, the future of food security is uncertain. Scientists at the John Innes Center, University of Queensland and University of Sydney have been working around the clock to develop a new “speed breeding” technique that could prove promising in helping feed the nine billion people excepted to inhabit this planet by 2050 in the face of unpredictable climatic conditions.
According to researchers, the new system is capable of growing crops much faster than traditional breeding methods, with the possibility of producing six crops per year instead of one. This allows researchers to study plants and improve their genetics for pest and disease resiliency in a shorter period of time.
“Globally, we face a huge challenge in breeding higher yielding and more resilient crops. Being able to cycle through more generations in less time, will allow us to more rapidly create and test generic combinations and find the best combinations for different environments,” said Dr. Brande Wulff, a scientist at the John Innes Center.
For many years, the improvement rates of several staple crops have stalled, leading to a significant impediment in the search for how to feed a growing population and address the impacts of climate change.
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Speed breeding, says Dr. Wulff, offers a potential new solution to a global challenge for the 21st century. “We must use every tool in the toolbox to breed plants that can stand up to the rigors of climate change and to sustainably feed a growing population. By accelerating crop growth and reproduction, scientists and breeders around the world will be able to more quickly breed and engineer plants better adapted to tomorrow’s climate — plants which are nutritious and more resistant to diseases.”
The process takes place in fully controlled growth environments, where plants are exposed to LED lights optimized to drive photosynthesis for up to 22 hours a day. LED lighting offers a more cost-effective and efficient alternative to conventional sodium vapor lamps, which have long been in widespread use but are ineffective because they generate too much heat and not enough light.
Speed breeding has already been proven for a range of important crops, including bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, peas and chickpeas, all of which have achieved up to six generations per year. Canola, a form of rapeseed, has achieved four cycles a year.
By employing this technique, scientists can study plant-pathogen interactions, plant shape and structure and flowering time. The growing cycle can be repeated every eight weeks. Researchers say the process could also be paired with other technologies, such as CRISPR gene editing, to get to the end result faster.
For now, the technique is too expensive to scale, but financial restraints aren’t the only thing that could keep it from reaching critical mass. Currently, large swaths of the population mistrust GMOs and have voiced concerns about their impact on human and environmental health. While some studies have suggested that GMOs are safe, there are still considerable gaps in knowledge and the evidence is inconclusive. This is a considerable challenge the science community and food and agricultural industries will need to address if speed breeding is to be deployed on a larger scale.