With the world population estimated to reach a stunning 10 billion by 2050, 60 to 80 percent more food will be needed to feed everybody. This challenge will become even more formidable due to climate change and diseases that affect our crops over time.
Plant breeding, however, is a painstakingly slow process and it takes decades to reach conclusive findings through it. So, plant breeders are adopting ways to speed it up. Dr. Hickey, a plant geneticist at the University of Queensland in Australia, has been working on “speed breeding”.
Speed breeding, as Dr. Hickey’s team calls it, is a process to control light and temperature in a way that sends plant growth into overdrive. This enables researchers to harvest seeds for the next generation of crops. According to the researchers, speed breeding has great potential. Combined with gene editing, it is the best way to create new crops in larger quantities.
This technique allows plant breeders to grow up to six generations of crops in a year. “What we’re really talking about here is creating plant factories on a massive scale,” Dr. Hickey said. New techniques to optimize flowering times and make plants more resistant to the rapidly warming planet have also been adopted. For Dr. Hickey, a real step-change would be making these crops more resilient in the face of climate change.
With cheaper and more powerful technology, Dr. Hickey’s team plans to train plant breeders in India, Zimbabwe and Mali. “It’s important to make sure this benefits farmers in developing countries too,” Dr. Hickey said. A good amount of speed breeding can be set up with minimum skills and can be done using solar panels to power cheap LEDs.
“One technology alone is not going to solve our problems,” Dr. Hickey said. “We’re going to need all the tools in the shed.”
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