European Seeds Asscociation
European Seeds Asscociation

Precision breeding – smart rules for new techniques!

Plant breeding innovation is an impressive story to tell. A hundred and fifty years ago, Gregor Mendel discovered the basic principles of inheritance of traits. His laws were widely ignored and only in the 1920s, finally recognised as the fundament of population genetics. So it has only been a good 100 years that we have properly understood how to improve crops no longer randomly but in a targeted manner.

A hundred years ago, the world population hadn't reached the two billion mark. Today, it has more than tripled and is heading straight for eight billion by 2020. In parallel, Europe's agricultural workforce has shrunk from around 50% of the total population to less then 3% today.

The term of "first green revolution" describes this incredible modernisation of farming. While this success is based on multiple factors, their relative shares of impact, e.g. of mechanisation, fertilisation, crop protection and plant breeding have changed over time. Recent studies see the share of breeding between 60% and more than 80%, depending on the plant species. In short, it is brains and genes that drive agricultural yields and farm productivity today. In the future, these two will have a new, powerful ally: big data. Speed, throughput and analysis of information transforms crop production towards the new era of 'precision farming'. Producing more with less is perfectly in line with overarching policy objectives of assuring food security at affordable prices, improving environmental protection and using resources in a sustainable manner.

The good news is that plant breeding is continuously developing new innovative technologies that help to back up this new green revolution. 'Precision breeding' allows breeders to target specific parts in the genome and achieve individual breeding goals much faster. From site-directed mutagenesis to CRISPR/CAS9 (just voted 'technol- ogy of the year'!), there are many exciting new techniques that hold great potential to speed up innovation in the coming decades.

There is more good news. Most of these techniques may be used in basically all breeding programmes, from large scale row crops to local and minor species. They are rather simple and low cost technologies, making them available to companies of all sizes worldwide. Still, there is one element that may still hold us back in releasing the innovative potential of these technologies. If we strangle them by high-cost authorisation requirements, paralysing uncertainty of political decision making and heavy paper trails of traceability and labelling requirements, we will not reap the benefits of our scientific progress and technological advance. It needs smart rules for smart breeding to fully capitalise on the benefits precision breeding will bring to precision farming and our societies.

Dr. Garlich von Essen

Dr. Garlich von Essen, has been Secretary General of the European Seeds Association (ESA) since 2004. The agronomist and econonomist started his professional career in the European Commission's DG Agriculture, graduated in administrative and political sciences, and worked in the European Parliament before joining the European seed industry.