Improved genetics, biotechnology seen as solution to production challenges

Extreme weather, pests, disease — it may sound like something straight out of the Bible, but these are real problems facing producers across the globe today, and they require solutions soon, says Monsanto’s vice-president of global plant breeding.

“We tend to think about 2030 or 2050, but I think we also need to keep in mind the problems are real now,” Samuel Eathington told the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) earlier this month. “Even if you look at just the next 10 years, the amount of increase in meat and grain production that needs to occur to meet the demand is not insignificant. It is a challenge that we need to figure out how to solve.”

A key challenge is learning to do more with fewer resources, Eathington said. His projections show a 40 per cent gap between the water needed in the future and available today, and another 65 million to 85 million hectares needed to meet the demands of the next 10 years. As a result, driving productivity on a per-acre basis will be critical.

But Eathington said several conditions are coming together to drive down productivity. Instances of extreme weather are increasing and nighttime temperatures are also increasing, as are winter temperatures.

“We’re going to have to adapt our crops to grow and change with these conditions,” said Eathington. But even if crops are bred for maximum yield potential, pests and diseases continue to chip away at yield. “Today, we already see that a lot of these pests are robbing up to 10 per cent of the productivity in our crops. That’s projected to continue to grow.”

Genomics key

Eathington said improved breeding technology is needed to address the challenge.

“Genomics really is what drives a lot of the current genetic gain that we see in our products,” said Eathington. “As these problems continue to spread around the world, you really need to access the genetics and germplasm of different parts of the world to create the right combination of these genes to solve the problems you’re facing.”

This improved access to germplasm has allowed breeding programs to create lines that are better adapted to local growing conditions.

“You test and grow and evaluate those products in the environment you’re trying to position them into,” Eathington said.

He pointed to improved nitrogen use efficiency in corn as an example of how breeding has reduced the resources needed for a crop. In the 1970s, around 1.5 lbs. of nitrogen were needed for every bushel of corn produced. Today, hybrids are producing that same bushel out of one lb. of nitrogen.

Water use efficiency has also improved. Hybrids from the 1960s yielded six bushels per inch of water, while hybrids today yield almost 10 bushels with the same inch.

“These crops are getting a lot more efficient at taking up and using the water that’s available to them. Driving that productivity means less land per bushel of corn.”

Improved breeding

“As a plant breeder, there’s really been a pretty dramatic change in how we do plant breeding,” said Eathington. “This is what’s enabling us to drive crop yields faster and drive this adaptation quicker.”

Traditionally, plant breeding has been done in the field through individual plant selection, but in some crop types, that process is rapidly being replaced by genomics, allowing breeding organizations to get new varieties to growers quickly and at less cost.

“All of a sudden, a plant breeder can do his selection at the seed stage,” Eathington said. “A breeder can now say, ‘Of all the seeds I could plant, here’s the ones I want to plant.’ That really changes your selection ability and your power, whether it’s for quantitative traits like yield or qualitative traits like disease resistance.”

And agronomics are equally important in Eathington’s mind. “We have historically planted our crops at a standing rate, but there’s a tremendous amount of variation in those fields. We really should be planting those crops at different plant densities across the field. We really should be using variable nitrogen rate across the field. We should be — ultimately, down the road — putting different genetics within those fields.”

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