Innovative Plant Breeding Can Help Feed The World, Nurture The Planet

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'A return to local or native seeds is one of the conditions needed to reach food sovereignty,' one researcher in agricultural policies said
'A return to local or native seeds is one of the conditions needed to reach food sovereignty,' one researcher in agricultural policies said

Mere weeks from now, commitments made at a United Nations Food Systems Summit in New York will help determine whether we can feed the world while also mitigating climate change.

World leaders will convene to tackle the most pressing challenge of our time: How to nourish a rapidly growing global population in a way that is safe and sustainable.

To lay the groundwork for this landmark event, scientists, government ministers, environmental advocates, and farmers recently gathered at a preparatory Pre-Summit in Rome. There, the leader of the U.S. delegation — Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Jewel Bronaugh — spoke to the multilateral priority of "leading with science and innovation."

We wholly share that vision. With nearly 8 billion people to feed, nothing short of deploying all of our agricultural tools will do. Cutting-edge scientific methods, like gene editing, already allow researchers to develop resilient crops that can adapt to environmental pressures and ensure a more sustainable food supply tailored to the cultural preferences and needs of local populations.

However, we can only transform food systems if the benefits of scientific progress are broadly available to farmers across the world. Right now, that's far from assured. The onus falls on policymakers taking part in the upcoming summit to remove obstacles to their use.

Some 10% of the world's population — up to 811 million people — are undernourished; an increase of as many as 161 million over last year. The cost of nutritious foods coupled with persistently high levels of income inequality have put healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people.

There's an urgent need to transform our food systems, which are both drivers and victims of climate change, and intertwined with land degradation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and resource depletion. These threats to our planetary life-support systems propel infectious disease, poor health, and economic inequality, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization at the U.N.

Fortunately, science has the ability to catalyze systemic change. New plant-breeding innovations can play a central role in ramping up food production and making yields more nutritious, profitable for farmers, and environmentally friendly. They may even preserve — or enhance — our natural resources.

Some of today's techniques refine longstanding methods, such as traditional cross-breeding — in which plant pollen is moved within and between species by hand. Others make use of scientific breakthroughs like gene editing — a tool that acts as a molecular word-processor, making targeted changes to a crop's DNA.

Our organization, CGIAR, helps small-scale farmers grow more hardy, productive crops through such advances in plant science. Consider scientists at one of our research centers: the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. By editing a few genes, they can create disease-resistant varieties of rice — an essential staple accounting for one-third of total food intake in the Southeast Asian country — that thrive despite increasingly severe climate impacts on food production.

Meanwhile, scientists at South Africa's University of Witwatersrand are deploying gene editing to develop disease-resistant cassava—a widely-consumed, calorie-rich root vegetable. At Cairo University, a team is making progress on drought-tolerant wheat.  And at Ethiopia's Addis Ababa University, scientists are developing a healthier-to-eat mustard plant. Elsewhere, there are gene-edited crops in progress that carry more nutrients, stay fresh longer, and require notably less water.

Projects like these can help secure the world's food supply — if the intended beneficiaries, farmers and seed producers, have access to the resulting varieties and agriculture systems.

The Pre-Summit in Rome provided an avenue to advance this inclusive goal in the run-up to September. Over the course of three days, participants proposed game-changing strategies for building resilient, inclusive and sustainable food systems.

Eliminating barriers to the benefits of science, including innovative plant breeding, proved chief amongst these strategies. Of course, some farmers, producers and communities will prefer to use traditional farming systems or grow conventional varieties, which we wholeheartedly respect.

But with their potential to boost economic growth and reduce hunger and malnutrition, it would be unjust to hinder availability of gene-edited crops to those who wish to adopt them. For small-scale farming communities in particular, earning a livelihood will increasingly depend on access to higher-yielding crops that can better withstand drought and disease.

National leaders attending the forthcoming global forum in New York have made commitments to build more sustainable, equitable and healthier food systems. This means striving to create an environment that empowers countries to adopt tools that can sustainably meet the varied preferences and needs of their populations — ensuring that no one is left behind.

The U.N. Food Systems Summit presents an opportunity to translate goals into actionable change by embedding access to trailblazing innovation into global efforts to eradicate hunger and malnutrition.

We cannot afford to let it slip through our fingers.

Neal Gutterson is a CGIAR System Board Member. Barbara Wells is the Global Director of Genetic Innovation at CGIAR. 

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