Fast-track breeding could bring a second Green Revolution
Green revolution: Fast-track breeding is beginning to develop crops that can produce more and healthier food – without controversial genetic engineering.
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The Green Revolution of the 1960s largely achieved its huge leap in productivity by streamlining plants and farming methods to work across hundreds of millions of hectares, regardless of local tastes or environments. It re-designed plants for high-input industrial agriculture, so they could respond to an intensive regimen of fertilizers, water, and pesticides, regardless of the environment. But the molecular Green Revolution will work, says McCouch, by fine-tuning crops to perform in a particular environment, minus additional input. Farmers are backing off growing rice in water, for instance, “because they can’t afford the water, there isn’t enough water in the world.”Skip to next paragraph
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Molecular breeding will also build crops, McCouch says, to “respond constructively to changes in the environment that we cannot predict,”like flooding and drought. “A really big challenge in discovery genetics right now,” she says, “is to understand how plants sense environments: How do they count number of days? How do they count the number hours of daylight? How do they know when to grow and when to hold their breath if they’re underwater? Once we make the discovery of which genes allow the plants to sense these things, then we can do marker-assisted selection” and move those genes into local varieties that already have the other traits farmers want.
The potential for molecular breeding to help farmers adapt to a rapidly changing world became evident last month when Nature Biotechnology published an article about rice breeding in Japan. Geneticists at the Iwate Biotechnology Research Center 130 miles north of Fukushima were already using molecular breeding to improve the cold-tolerant rice variety preferred by farmers there, when last year’s earthquake hit. The subsequent tsunami left a huge swath of rice paddies – 58,000 acres, representing almost a fifth of the nation’s rice supply – contaminated with too much salt for conventional farming. The researchers promptly switched their focus to salt-tolerant genes. Instead of taking five years to produce a suitable crossbreed by conventional methods, they now hope to deliver those seeds to affected farmers in just two years, for the 2014 growing season.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Conniff, a 2012 Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellow, is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. He is the author of several books, including The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the decline of wildlife in Africa and about Namibia’s community-based wildlife management system.
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