Promoting the development of sustainable agriculture
Increasing production to nourish a human population of 10 billion in 2050 while preserving the environment: this is one of the most significant societal and environmental challenges faced by agriculture and humankind. Put more succinctly, we must satisfy our current food needs without sacrificing the ability of future generations to do the same.
A profound shift in agricultural production will need to take place, and the seed industry has an essential part to play. Since there can be no crops without seeds, seeds are the foundation for sustainable agricultural systems.
Improving plant varieties to have reduced environmental impacts
An input is any product that is artificially added to crops to improve yield, such as plant protection products (PPP), fertiliser, or even water. To reduce input use and thus limit agriculture’s environmental impacts, plant breeders have several areas of focus:
- increasing disease and pest resistance to decrease the PPP treatments needed;
- increasing plant uptake of nitrogen to decrease the need for fertiliser (and thus reduce nitrate pollution and oil dependency);
- putting land under grass to control weeds and therefore limit the need for herbicides;
- increasing tolerance to water stress so plants can grow even during droughts.
Exploiting the ecological benefits of cover crops
Cover crops furnish many ecological services. They act as green fertilisers because they increase soil organic matter. They also trap nitrate, preventing it from leaching off into ground and surface waters.
Often, cover crops are planted during fallow periods to limit soil erosion and weed proliferation over the winter. They have the additional benefit of enhancing soil structure and providing habitat for insects and small mammals. Farmers are required to plant bands of cover crops along watercourses to control the run-off of plant protection products and fertilisers.
Farmers have the option of buying seed mixtures from seed suppliers. Such mixtures contain a combination of species specifically chosen for their functional benefits. Particularly beneficial species include white mustard, blue tansy, the various clovers, lucerne, common vetch, and ryegrass.
Expanding the usefulness of crops
Crops have a positive influence on the air we breathe because they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) and release oxygen. For example, one hectare of maize takes up as much CO2 as four hectares of forest. A 230 m2 lawn produces all the oxygen needs for a family of 4.
The usefulness of crops extends beyond food. They are natural and renewable commodities that can be employed to make biofuels, bioplastics, solvents, surfactants and lubricants, as well as biomaterials. Plant breeders are striving to create plant varieties well suited to these uses. Ultimately, our needs for energy, materials, and specialised compounds will be met by products made via green chemistry instead of by products made with petroleum.