Weatherwatch: scientists develop 'speed breeding' to feed rising population

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Paul Brown

Researchers are developing a system to enable six harvests a year of staple food crops that can survive climate change

Dr Brande Wulff, of the John Innes Centre, Norwich
 Dr Brande Wulff, of the John Innes Centre, Norwich, joint author of a new report on ‘speed breeding’

Scientists are engaged in a race against time to breed staple crops that can both survive climate change and yield bigger harvests. Their aim is to feed a growing population in a warming world.

The method used for centuries of growing one crop a year in variable weather conditions and then selecting the seeds from the best plants is no longer viable in fast-changing climatic conditions. Scientists are concerned that for some years there have been few improvements in yields of grain.

A new system called speed breeding, designed to grow six crops a year, has been developed in glasshouses to accelerate the process. Using LED lighting to aid photosynthesis, intensive regimes allow the plants to grow for 22 hours a day. This new form of lighting is a lot cheaper and also more efficient than using the old sodium vapour lamps that produced too much heat and not enough light.

Among the crops that can now be grown up to six generations a year are wheat, barley, peas and chickpeas. Canola, a form of rapeseed, can achieve four cycles.

Using this technology, scientists can study the way plants deal with diseases, and their shape and structure and flowering time, and the growing cycle can be repeated every eight weeks.

It is hoped the technique will yield new varieties of crops that can be grown on a commercial scale within 10 years. If this could be achieved, it would increase productivity in the same way as the green revolution of the 1960s, when new crop varieties, modern farm practices, and use of fertilisers saved millions of people from starvation.