Meeting the growing demand for food
The seed industry faces two major challenges in the same time: providing food for a growing world population and adapting to the loss of farmland. One solution is to create new varieties. The goal is to generate plants of greater nutritional quality that are simultaneously more resistant to drought, pests, and diseases.
Ramping up production
As the world population continues to grow, so does the need for food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to nourish the additional 2.3 billion humans that will be added to the population. Each year, the demand for grains increases by about 30 million tons. The seed industry is tackling these production and supply challenges head on.
Loss of farmland
Although the world population and the demand for food is growing, the world’s surface area dedicated to farmland is shrinking. In France, 34 million hectares were farmed in 1950. That figure had dropped to 29 million by 2010. As this trend continues, farmers are faced with the challenge of producing more food on less land.
Increasing production with new varieties
As if the disappearance of farmland were not enough of a challenge, there are other difficulties to surmount as well. First, there is climatic variability (e.g., drought, freezing temperatures) and water scarcity. To help farmers increase production despite these constraints, the French seed industry is investing in research that will generate new varieties with good yields even under stressful conditions.
Plant breeders are largely employing a tried-and-true approach: creating hybrids by crossing parent plants that are adapted to harsh climatic conditions. However, some work is aimed at identifying the genes underlying drought resistance. The goal is to transfer them to important, drought-sensitive crops, namely wheat and maize. US researchers have successfully transferred a gene isolated from a soil bacterium to maize. The presence of this gene allows plant growth to continue even during periods of drought. Experiments carried out in the field have shown that, under drought conditions, these modified maize varieties show a 7–15% mean improvement in yield. Efforts are also being focused on improving drought tolerance in soybean, sunflower, chickpea, and lentils.
Improving plant nutritional quality
Another research focus is improving the nutritional quality of food crops. Today’s rapeseed oil, which is prized for its nutritional qualities, is the product of decades of plant breeding. Over time, researchers have managed to create plants with drastically reduced levels of both erucic acid (a fatty acid that presents health risks at high concentrations) and glucosinolates (the sulphur-bearing compounds responsible for rapeseed’s pungency). In the case of sunflower seeds, plant breeding has led to increased levels of oil (+60%) and vitamin E and decreased levels of saturated fatty acids.
Plant breeders are also working on improving the nutritional quality of livestock forage. For example, it would be useful to increase the digestibility of tall fescue and cock’s foot grass, two species used in grasslands, because they are hardy and resistant to both drought and disease. Research is also focused on optimising species associations—designing combinations of species that complement each other nutritionally and that yield high-fibre hay.