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Biodiversity key for feeding the future, researchers say

Barley (c) The James Hutton Institute
The purpose of the discussion was to chart a way forward for the use of crop wild relatives in addressing the food security agenda.

“We must mine the biodiversity in seed banks to help to overcome food shortages,” urge Susan McCouch and colleagues, including the James Hutton Institute’s Robbie Waugh, as they called on plant scientists to make an effort to domesticate new crops and increase the sustainability of crop-production systems in a comment titled Agriculture: Feeding the future, published in Nature.

Humanity depends on fewer than a dozen of the approximately 300,000 species of flowering plants for 80% of its caloric intake. And we capitalise on only a small fraction of the genetic diversity of each of these species. But food availability must double in the next 25 years to meet demand in the face of climate change, soil degradation, and water and land shortages. More than 1,700 gene banks throughout the world hold hundreds of thousands of seeds from crop species, primitive varieties called land races, crop wild relatives and modern varieties that are no longer in use. Such plants have survived repeated and extreme environmental challenges, yet their resilience and adaptive capacity remain poorly understood.

Co-author Robbie Waugh, from the James Hutton Institute and University of Dundee, commented: “The overall purpose of the discussion was to chart a way forward for the use of crop wild relatives in addressing the food security agenda, and to raise the awareness of governments, the general public and – most importantly – possible funders of the enormous potential held within these materials for addressing this critical global challenge.

The authors call for a massive sequencing effort on seed bank holdings so that researchers may “predict plant performance and target field experiments strategically”, making plant breeding faster, more efficient and cheaper. They also call for an internationally accessible informatics infrastructure to bring together data that are currently managed independently by gene bank curators, agronomists and breeders.

The estimated cost for such a systematic, collaborative global effort to feed the future is around US$200 million annually. This, they conclude, seems like great value, given that as a society we spend about $1 billion each year to run CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland and up to $180 million on a single fighter jet.

Read the full text of the Comment in Nature.

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Printed from /news/biodiversity-key-feeding-future-researchers-say on 18/07/19 04:13:20 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.