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Providing For Our Brave New World

By | Blog, Future Directions
The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) published a special issue in June entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change’

The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) published a special issue in June entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change

By Jonathan Ingram

The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) recently published a special issue entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change’.

More often than not, climate change discussions are focused on debating the degree of change we are likely to experience, unpredictable weather scenarios, and politics. However, regardless of the hows and whys, it is now an undeniable fact that the climate will change in some way.

This JXB special issue focuses on the necessary and cutting edge research needed to breed plants that can cope under new conditions, which is essential for continued production of food and resources in the future.

The breadth of research required to address this problem is wide. The 12 reviews included in the issue cover aspects such as research planning and putting together integrated research programs, and more specific topics, such as the use of traditional landraces in breeding programs. Alongside these reviews, original research addresses some of the key questions using novel techniques and methodology. Critically, the research presented comes from a diversity of labs around the world, from European wheat fields to upland rice in Brazil. Taking a global view is essential in our adaptation to climate change.

Avoiding starvation

Why release this special issue now?

Quite simply, the consequences of an inadequate response to climate change are stark for the human population. In fact, as previously discussed on the Global Plant Council blog, changing climate and extreme weather events are already having an impact on food production. For example, drought in Australia (2007), Russia (2010) and South-East China (2013) all resulted in steep increases in food prices. However, a positive side effect of this was to put food security at the top of the global agenda.

A farm in China during drought. Reduced food production can cause steep rises in food prices leading to socio-economic problems.  Photo credit: Bert van Dijk used under Creative Commons License 2.0

A farm in China during drought. Reduced food production can cause steep rises in food prices leading to socio-economic problems.
Photo credit: Bert van Dijk used under Creative Commons License 2.0

Moving forwards, researchers and breeders alike will have to change their fundamental approach to developing novel varieties of crops. In the past, breeders have been highly succesful in increasing yields to feed a growing population. However, we now need to adapt to a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment.

Dr Bryan McKersie sums this up in his contribution to the special issue. He commented: “Current plant breeding methods use large populations and rigorous selection in field environments, but the future environment is different and does not exist yet. Lessons learned from the Green Revolution and development of genetically engineered crops suggest that a new interdisciplinary research plan is needed to achieve food security.”

Driving up yields

So which traits should we be studying to increase resilience to climate change in our crops?

A potentially important characteristic brought to the foreground by Dr Karine Chenu and colleagues (University of Queensland, Australia) is susceptibility to frost damage. Although seemingly counterintuitive at first, the changing climate could result in greater frost exposure at key phases of the crop lifecycle. Warmer temperatures, or clear and cool nights during a drought, would allow vulnerable tissue to emerge earlier in the spring (Gu et al., 2008; Zheng et al., 2012). A late frost could then be incredibly destructive to our agricultural systems, causing losses of up to 85% (Paulsen and Heyne, 1983; Boer et al., 1993).

As explained by Dr Chenu, “Finding frost tolerant lines would thus help to deal with frost damage but also with losses due to extreme heat and drought – as they could be avoided by earlier sowings”.

The authors conclude that a “national yield advantage of up to 20% could result from the breeding of frost tolerant lines if useful genetic variation can be found”. The impact of this for future agriculture is incredibly exciting.

This study is just one illustration of the importance of thinking outside the box and investigating a wide range of traits when looking to adapt crops to climate change.

You can find the full Breeding plants to cope with future climate change Special Issue of Journal of Experimental Botany here. Much of the research in the issue is freely available (open access).

Journal of Experimental Botany publishes an exciting mix of research, review and comment on fundamental questions of broad interest in plant science. Regular special issues highlight key areas.

References

Association of Applied Biologists. 2014. Breeding plants to cope with future climate change. Newsletter of the Association of Applied Biologists 81, Spring/Summer 2014.

Boer R, Campbell LC, Fletcher DJ. 1993. Characteristics of frost in a major wheat-growing region of Australia. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 44, 1731–1743.

Gu L, Hanson PJ, Post WM et al. 2008. The 2007 Eastern US spring freeze: increased cold damage in a warming world? BioScience 58, 253–262.

Paulsen GM, Heyne EG. 1983. Grain production of winter wheat after spring freeze injury. Agronomy Journal 75, 705–707.

Zheng BY, Chenu K, Dreccer MF, Chapman SC. 2012. Breeding for the future: what are the potential impacts of future frost and heat events on sowing and flowering time requirements for Australian bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) varieties? Global Change Biology 18, 2899–2914.

An interview with Ellen Bergfeld

By | Blog, GPC Community, Interviews

EllenBergfeldThis week, New Media Fellow Amelia Frizell-Armitage has been talking to Ellen Bergfeld, CEO of the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies (ACSESS), a coalition of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) (both of which are Global Plant Council member organisations) and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). She spoke to us about the societies, her role as CEO, and her visions for the future.

What is the purpose of the ACSESS?

ACSESS is a nonprofit organization founded by the ASA, CSSA and SSSA to support the activities of member societies.

ACSESS has five primary goals. 1) Firstly, we help professional societies representing agronomic, crop, soil, and environmental sciences to collaborate and 2) advance the missions, visions, and activities of these societies. 3) We promote the value and image of agronomic, crop, soil and environmental resource professions, and 4) unify communication with scientists, educators, policy-makers, and the public to enhance impact. Finally, 5) we engage science-based knowledge on the challenges facing humanity.

How do the work and aims of the ACSESS coalition cross over with those of the Global Plant Council (GPC)?

The GPC’s goal to feed an ever-growing human population sustainably is of paramount interest and importance to all three of our member societies.

Additionally, all three societies advocate nationally and internationally for plant and crop sciences. They act as catalysts to generate plant-based solutions for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, whilst preserving biodiversity, protecting the environment, reducing world hunger, and improving human health and wellbeing.

In your opinion, what will be the biggest challenges over the next 50 years in terms of food production and agriculture?

Three things: climate change, degraded and decreased natural resources, and population growth.

What do you think our top priorities should be in terms of tackling these issues?

Adapting plants to climatic changes and developing crops that can be sustainably grown in the field is a top priority, and very broad in terms of the research required.

Another large gap I see is education and science literacy. By educating and empowering communities, particularly girls and women, regarding the carrying capacity of the planet, we can open up discussions and raise awareness of the need for sustainability in all aspects of our lives.

What are the key developments in agronomy required to ensure sustainable agriculture in the future?

If we continue to deplete our soil and water resources, this will have a dire impact on our ability to feed the population. We need to recognize this, and adapt our agricultural practices accordingly.

2015 is International Year of Soils. Can you sum up in one sentence why soils are so important?

 Soils Sustain Life!

What inspired you to leave academia and move into science policy, strategy and administration?

At the time I was looking to graduate, I would have had to do multiple postdocs to be competitive for an academic position. I enjoyed the teaching and working with animals, but not the lab work or grant writing.  I pursued the Congressional Science Fellowship to open new doors and took advantages of the opportunities that followed.

Day to day, what is the most rewarding part of your job as CEO?

I enjoy connecting our sciences, and scientists, to address the global challenges that we face.

Interacting with the best and brightest minds who are collectively addressing these challenges is incredibly inspiring and fulfilling.

Ellen Bergfeld received her BSc in Animal Science from Ohio State University, going on to study reproductive physiology, first at masters then PhD level, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  After graduating she was awarded the Federation of Animal Science Societies Congressional Science Fellowship. This Fellowship provides an opportunity for highly skilled scientists to spend a year working in congress as special assistants in legislative areas. Following the fellowship Ellen became Executive Director of the American Society of Animal Science. Ellen is now CEO of ACSESS.

The Nature of Crop Domestication

By | Blog, Global Change

Why do we eat some plants but not others? What makes a good crop, and how have we transformed these species to suit our own needs?

Around 12,000 years ago, humans began to transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to a more settled agricultural life. We began to selectively breed cereals and other crops to improve desirable traits, such as their yields, taste and seed retention. Today we eat less than 1% of all flowering plant species, relying on a handful of staples for almost all of our calories.

Why do we eat so few plant species?

Professor John Warren, Aberystwyth University

Professor John Warren, Aberystwyth University

We spoke with Professor John Warren at Aberystwyth University in the UK, who delves into the history of crop domestication in his new book, ‘The Nature of Crops: How We Came to Eat the Plants We Do,’ published on 24th April 2015. He blogs about how we came to eat certain plants over at Pick of the Crop, and said that his book developed from there. “The stories of crop domestication are just so interesting, weird, biologically strange, fun – they just demand to be told,” he enthused.

So why do we eat so few of the edible plants in the world? Based on his research into gene flow and plant breeding systems, Professor Warren presents novel theories in his book: “Previously people have argued that it’s because most plant are poisonous, but I don’t think that holds water. We actively seek out toxic plants as crops; plants with large food stores tend to be well defended with toxins. Instead I argue that it’s plant sexual habits that limit crop domestication. Plants with the usual pollination mechanisms don’t make ideal crops as they will fail to set seed when grown on an agricultural scale. Thus we domesticate things that are wind pollinated or pollinated by common generalist insects.”

Science-led crop breeding

Why do we eat poisonous plants?

How did our ancestors come to realise that rhubarb leaves are poisonous but the stems make a tasty crumble? Professor Warren says, “Its discovery was an accident and a fairly recent one – but read the book for the full story.” Image credit: Cory Doctorow used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Professor Warren works at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, which houses much of the research into agriculture and the environment that ties into the theme of his book. “Previously it’s been argued that there haven’t really been any new crops in the last 5,000 years. Here in Aberystwyth, we know that ryegrass, clover, elephant grass and others are still in the process of being domesticated, so you don’t need to be an archaeologist to study the process,” he explained. In addition to breeding new varieties of cereals and forage crops for food and feed, the Public Good Plant Breeding group at IBERS are also in the process of breeding Miscanthus, a fast-growing grass species that could be used for sustainable bioenergy in the future.

Resources like the Diversity Seek (DivSeek) initiative, established by the Global Plant Council in association with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the CGIAR Consortium and the Secretariat of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, could be used to enable science-driven crop breeding and domestication. DivSeek aims to unlock the genetic diversity that is currently stored in genebanks around the world by using cutting edge sequencing, phenotyping and ‘big data’ technologies. The genetic variation that is identified can then be used as the basis for breeding programs and could assist in the domestication of novel crops.

The future of agriculture

Drought damage

Drought damage in California, 2014. Image credit: US Department of Agriculture used under CC BY 2.0.

The crops we eat today were domesticated in highly fertile conditions; this means they are nutritious but tend to demand a high input of fertilizers and water. Professor Warren argues that we can use modern science to develop more sustainable ways to feed the global population: “It’s important that we start to think outside the box and try and domesticate a whole range of new crops that are more sustainable and less demanding of agricultural inputs.” An important source of future crop species could be stress-tolerant plants living in difficult environments: “I think the crops of the future could still be waiting to be domesticated from plants growing in harsh conditions,” explained Professor Warren.

Professor Warren also discussed how we could use underutilized crops in new ways to make agriculture more sustainable in the future: “I think and hope that we will eat more species, and that we will grow many more of these as perennials in poly-culture systems. That makes ecological sense in terms of niche exploitation and yield sustainability. It also makes more genetic sense in terms of resistance to pests and diseases.” The only downside, he said, is that these systems are so different to what we have now that we will need innovative research to develop them.


About Professor John Warren

Akee fruit

The akee is the national fruit of Jamaica. Image credit: Loren Sztajler, used under CC BY-ND 2.0.

John is a plant ecologist at Aberystwyth University, UK, with research interests in the origin and maintenance of diversity and enhancement of conservation value, particularly within agricultural ecosystems. He is the Director of Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Botany in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences. John says the strangest plant he’s ever eaten is the akee, a plant beloved of Jamaicans that looks and tastes a bit like scrambled eggs but which is delicious with saltfish.


Over to you

What do you think will be the most important crops of tomorrow, and which underutilized plants will become dietary staples in an effort to feed the world more sustainably?