Does nature know best? New ORC research paper published

In an article
published in the on-line journal Sustainability on 17th October 2011, researchers at the Organic Research Centre review the advantages and disadvantages of evolutionary plant breeding. ORC’s Dr Thomas Döring and Prof. Martin Wolfe were joined by scientists from Hungary, Germany and the USA to highlight the potential, limitations and current state of research of this approach.

Organic agriculture urgently needs plant varieties that are more suitable to the special conditions found in organic systems, with plants showing better disease resistance, stronger vigour to compete against weeds, and higher nutrient scavenging abilities. However, mainstream plant breeding has mainly concentrated on creating varieties for the conventional market, selecting lines under conditions characterised by and the application of pesticides and mineral fertilizers.

One way for organic agriculture to get more independence from conventional breeding is offered by evolutionary plant breeding. This breeding approach makes use of the idea that natural selection can be used to improve the performance of grain crops over time. When farmers sow and re-sow seed from a genetically diverse crop year after year, those plants favoured under growing conditions prevailing on the farm contribute more seed to the next generation than plants with lower fitness. Therefore, the evolving crop has the capability of adapting to the conditions under which they are grown.

According to the authors, a major advantage is seen in the resilience of evolving crop populations under the predicted threats faced by agriculture such as global climate change. Because of the current legal restrictions for realizing the potential of evolutionary plant breeding the authors call for a change in legislation to allow evolving crop populations to enter agricultural practice on a larger scale.

Döring TF, Knapp S, Kovacs G, Murphy K, Wolfe MS. 2011. Evolutionary Plant Breeding in Cereals—Into a New Era. Sustainability 3, 1944-1971.

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