Why do we need to keep breeding new crop varieties?

Fueling wheat to win over heat

Global warming and changes in the amount – and location – of water, are key factors in the need to continue crop breeding programs. In addition, there are many diseases that affect crop yield and quality. We need to continue breeding new disease resistant crop varieties to ensure a healthy, adequate food supply. Below are examples of breeding programs at Oregon State University to portray why breeding new varieties is important.

Barley

Why do we need to keep breeding new crop varieties?

Barley is one of the world’s oldest crops – a truly ancient grain. Today, most barley in the world is used for animal feed, and in some areas barley is a staple food crop. In the US, most barley is used for malting and brewing.

Barley breeders are working to make barley more robust in the face of climate change. We also work to make it a more profitable crop for farmers, and more available to consumers. Breeders are working on a few innovative approaches. The first involves selecting for varieties that can be planted in the fall, survive the winter, and be ready for harvest early the next summer. At the same time, we are breeding varieties that will make best use of available precipitation, as we face increasing times of drought.

Most barley grown today is “covered” when it is ready for harvest. A protective hull adheres tightly to the seed, and this hull needs to be removed before the barley can be consumed. However, we have successfully bred “naked” barleys, and continue to look for more naked varieties. Naked barley can be used without further processing after harvest. This qualifies naked barleys as a whole grain.

 

Beer is an important beverage for many cultures, and barley will continue to be the base of beer. There is tremendous potential for barley to enter the food stream. It can also serve as a locally-available, premium, animal feed grain.

Wheat

Winter wheat is one of the major staple crops of the world. It is the primary cereal crop in Oregon.

Wheat is adaptive across environments and can be used for multiple end-products. The reason behind this is that wheat’s genetic code is “allohexaploid.” That means it can have up to six copies of specific genes for every trait! So, if a disease or climate conditions stress the plants in one of their gene sets, another gene set can take over, and help that year’s crop succeed.

Current challenges to the wheat are similar to other crops – increasing variation in temperature and moisture availability. These climate changes also expand the regions where diseases and insect pests of wheat are found. The challenge to breeders is to anticipate these climate-induced changes, which is a bit like predicting this year’s flu strains, or the stock market!

By making better predictions, we can develop cultivars that are disease resistant, insect resistant and tolerant to drought and temperature while still being high yielding. To improve breeding efficiency, we are looking to molecular markers. We have a lot of data collected on wheat’s genetic code, which is shared in various databases. That helps us be creative and look at ways to cross-breed different varieties. The new higher-yielding varieties will carry the desired traits for disease resistance, temperature tolerance and end-use quality.

Potatoes

Unlike barley and wheat, potatoes store their nutrition in underground tubers. You might think of potatoes as only the source of chips, fries and other starchy snack foods. In reality, potatoes are the third most important food crop in the world. Potatoes (as a vegetable) are consumed by more than a billion people worldwide and can grow from sea level to 4700 m above sea level. That is a very flexible growing range! Potatoes are grown in over 150 countries. They are a significant dietary source of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium. They also provide the micronutrients iron and zinc, fiber, vitamins C, B6 and B1, folate and essential amino acids.

Red potato in Shelley Jansky Hand

Potatoes, like other major food crops, face a range of abiotic and biotic stresses. Potatoes are a high input crop and need lots of fertilizer and pesticides for a productive crop. Further, potatoes are vulnerable for being regarded as an icon of “junk food” with changing consumer dietary preferences.

Potato breeders are trying to develop improved varieties with pest and disease resistance with improved nutrient use efficiency. Further, breeders are developing specialty potatoes with increased phytonutrient content. Breeders are using molecular and genomic information to improve breeding efficiency. They are also looking at reinventing potato as a diploid crop. This may help us use genetic resources and minimize losses due to tuber-borne diseases.

Potatoes are an important food crop for food security. They carry calories for energy, and many essential nutrients. They are a powerful delivery system for nutrition. Potatoes are one of the highest yielding crops per hectare of arable land. For all these reasons, and their delicious taste, the cultivated potato has the potential to address issues of food security.

Answered by Patrick Hayes, Bob Zemetra, and Sagar Sathuvalli, Oregon State University

To watch a video about barley breeding, or to read more, visit https://www.crops.org/about-crop-science/at-work/patrick-hayes.

To watch a video about potato breeding, or to read more, visit https://www.crops.org/about-crop-science/at-work/shelley-jansky.

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

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