Scientists are engaged in a race against time to breed staple crops that can both survive climate change and yield bigger harvests. Their aim is to feed a growing population in a warming world. The method used for centuries of growing one crop a year in variable weather conditions and then selecting the seeds from the best plants is no longer viable in fast-changing climatic conditions. Scientists are concerned that for some years there have been few improvements in yields of grain. The growing human population and a changing environment have raised significant concern for global food security, with the current improvement rate of several important crops inadequate to meet future demand. This slow improvement rate is attributed partly to the long generation times of crop plants.
A new system called speed breeding, designed to grow six crops a year, has been developed in glasshouses to accelerate the process. Using LED lighting to aid photosynthesis, intensive regimes allow the plants to grow for 22 hours a day. This new form of lighting is a lot cheaper and also more efficient than using the old sodium vapour lamps that produced too much heat and not enough light. The use of supplemental lighting in a glasshouse environment allows rapid generation cycling through single seed descent (SSD) and potential for adaptation to larger-scale crop improvement programs. Among the crops that can now be grown up to six generations a year are wheat, barley, peas and chickpeas. Canola, a form of rapeseed, can achieve four cycles.
- Using this technology, scientists can study the way plants deal with diseases, and their shape and structure and flowering time, and the growing cycle can be repeated every eight weeks.
- The quality and yield of the plants grown under controlled climate and extended daylight conditions was as good, or sometimes better, than those grown in regular glasshouses.
- The new technology could also have some great applications in future vertical farming systems, and some horticultural crops
- Being able to cycle through more generations in less time will allow to rapidly create and test genetic combinations, looking for the best combinations for different environments.
- The technology allows scientists to study plant characteristics such as pathogen interactions, shape and structure as well as flowering time.
It is hoped the technique will yield new varieties of crops that can be grown on a commercial scale within 10 years. If this could be achieved, it would increase productivity in the same way as the green revolution of the 1960s, when new crop varieties, modern farm practices, and use of fertilisers saved millions of people from starvation. There has been a lot of interest globally in this technique due to the fact that the world has to produce 60-80 per cent more food by 2050 to feed its nine billion people. So far the technique has been largely used for research purposes, but there's been overwhelming interest from industry to put the method into broader practice.