Breaking the seed bank to feed the future

Rice seeds

Nature has provided humans with over 300,000 species we can eat. Today, we get the majority of our calories from just a dozen plants.

This monoculture approach to agriculture suffers from issues like the threat of a major collapse of food systems in case of the rise of a disease targeting one of these few species. But that is a theoretical threat. The unavoidable question is whether these few plants can feed the expanding population on the planet -- expected to double the demands on agriculture in the next 25 years.

Based on the headlines, one would think that genetically modified foods sit atop science's toolbox for answering the food issue.

But science can offer a big boost on a more natural front. Cornell professor and plant geneticist Susan McCouch advocates turning to the power of nature:

Gene banks hold hundreds of thousands of seeds and tissue culture materials collected from farmers’ fields and from wild, ancestral populations, providing the raw material that plant breeders need to create crops of the future.

But, the wealth of genes in our seed banks are "not used to their full potential in plant breeding," according to McCouch. McCouch has outlined a three point program to turn these closed books into a scientific library:

  • A massive genetic sequencing effort on seed-bank holdings to document what exists in the collections, to strategically target experiments to evaluate what traits a plant has (called phenotyping) and to begin to predict plant performance.
  • A broad phenotyping initiative, not only of the gene bank holdings, but also of the progeny generated from crossing wild and exotic materials to adapted varieties targeted for local use.
  • An internationally accessible informatics infrastructure to coordinate data that are currently managed independently by gene-bank curators, agronomists and breeders.

McCouch estimates the cost of such a program at about $200 million per year, just a bit more than the cost of a single fighter jet. Sounds like science worth support.

Breaking the seed bank to feed the future
Can science use the genes engineered by nature instead of genetic engineering in the face of a pending food crisis?

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