Thanks to modern agriculture and plant breeding innovation, Europeans enjoy a high quality and plentiful supply of varied crops, fresh fruit and vegetables. Latest plant breeding methods use the power of nature to develop improved plant varieties that better meet consumer demands and address some of the key challenges we face in our food supply chain and in our diets.
Why do we need new plant varieties?
Is securing our food supply really a challenge for the future? Don’t we enjoy an abundance of supply and choice in Europe?
Most Europeans are unaware that the EU currently relies on an area the size of one third of its domestic arable land outside of its own territory to ensure our European food supply.1 With the global population expected to be almost 10 billion by 2050, European and global agricultural output will need to increase significantly over the coming decades. A combined effort of all actors across the food supply chain will be required to find solutions that allow us to produce more food in a sustainable way and to reduce crop loss and food waste e.g. by improving shelf life, distribution and market access.
Yields per hectare will need to increase to an extent that will only be possible with innovation. Latest plant breeding methods contribute to crop improvements that can lead to higher yields, better resistance to plant diseases or longer shelf life, resulting in higher quantities of food produced in less time, with fewer inputs, of a higher quality and at affordable prices.
Around 88 million tonnes of food are lost or wasted annually in the EU, with associated costs estimated at 143 billion Euros.2 Consumers are often unaware that this does not only refer to the food on their plates: Up to 40% of global crop yields are currently lost in the fields to plant pests and diseases and with climate change this percentage is expected to further increase significantly in the years ahead3.
Genetic change is natural: pests and diseases constantly mutate and change which creates a permanent natural threat to farmers’ crops. Like in human medicine it is an everlasting race between new plant varieties that resist these pests, and pests overcoming plant resistance.
It takes plant breeders years to develop a crop variety that can resist a new pest or disease, which means that in the meantime, significant proportions of yields could be lost in the fields and farmers might be obliged to use large amounts of pesticides to reduce these losses.
The latest plant breeding methods help plant breeders speed up the breeding process and significantly shorten the time required to find natural solutions that save yields and may reduce pesticide use.
One-third of the food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. The term “Food loss” refers to the decrease in edible food mass at the production, post-harvest and processing stages of the agricultural value chain, mostly in developing countries. “Food waste” refers to the amount of edible food discarded at the retail and consumer levels, mostly in developed countries. This overall food wastage represents a missed opportunity to improve food security, and comes at a huge environmental price. It will require a combined effort by all actors across the food supply chain to find solutions that allow us to reduce food losses and waste. Plant breeding innovation plays an important role in those efforts as it can improve the shelf-life of products, thus limiting mass food waste due to the quick deterioration of fruits and vegetables.
Of critical importance is that plant breeding also guarantees a higher variety of products, able to meet changing market demands and consumer habits, needs and expectations (allergies, nutritional needs and so on). It also keeps food costs affordable for consumers, having a direct impact on retailers' incomes as well. Thus, by ensuring the availability, quality and variety of products at affordable prices, plant breeding innovation ensures competitiveness and sustainability for all the actors in the food supply chain.
With agriculture covering approximately half of the EU’s land area, biodiversity and agricultural practices are intimately linked. An estimated 50% of all European species rely on agricultural habitats. Plant breeding innovation, therefore, can help to increase yields, which would reduce the need to dedicate more land to agricultural production and by so doing, save habitats and preserve biodiversity.
Plant breeding can also help producers overcome the enormous challenges posed by climate change, through the creation of new plant varieties with improved genetics exhibiting higher tolerance for higher temperatures, droughts and altered soil conditions. In addition, the use of modern agricultural technologies and improved plant varieties has direct and indirect effects on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, firstly by increasing yields (thus increasing CO2 absorption) and secondly by preventing the conversion of carbon-rich forests into farmland.
In general, the latest plant breeding methods are making an important contribution to sustainability of farms production. This ensures economic viability by increasing productivity, while at the same time consuming fewer resources and having a reduced impact on the environment.