By Tim Searchinger and Craig Hanson
This post was originally published on the World Resources Institute’s Insights blog.
The world is on a path to need almost 70 percent more crops in 2050 than those it produced in 2006. To close that crop gap without large price increases or clearing more valuable forests and savannas, yields are going to have to grow 33 percent more in the next 44 years than they did in the last 44. This is a tall order—yield growth in past decades was already pretty high, little new water for irrigation is left, and most farmers already use high amounts of fertilizers and other chemical inputs.
So how can the world sustainably secure more food? Use advances in molecular biology to renew the commitment to breeding better crops.
Improving Crop Breeding Through the “Other GM”
Most of the public attention about crop breeding focuses on the pros and cons of genetic modification (GM), which involves taking a select gene from one species and adding it to another. A new WRI publication evaluates the future of crop breeding—including GM as well as conventional crop breeding, which involves sexually combining two whole plants selected for their desirable characteristics. While our findings reveal that GM crops may play a useful role now in helping threatened crops resist disease, most of the gains in crop yields will depend on improving conventional breeding.
Breeding better crops has been a foundation of agriculture for as long as it has existed, yet seeds bred by scientists spread to most of the world only over the past several decades. Improved breeds grow faster, devote more of their energy to the edible parts of crops, and better resist stresses from droughts, poor soils, and pests.