How plant breeding can help meet global challenges, from food security and poverty to malnutrition

The world’s largest gene library for beans, cassava and tropical forages has been officially opened in Colombia. Its objective: to preserve plant biodiversity and support cutting-edge agronomic research.

The Future Seeds gene bank, located near Cali, Colombia, is managed by the CGIAR’s Alliance of Bioversity International global research partnership and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). It ensures the long-term preservation of the world’s largest crop collections, including two of the most important staple foods in the Global South as well as plants eaten by livestock.

Crop selection for climate resilience

According to CGIAR projections, climate change is expected to reduce crop productivity by 5% for each degree of warming above historical levels. This alone represents a significant challenge to global food security.

By offering free genetic material to researchers creating new crop varieties that can withstand the impact of extreme weather and rising temperatures, the organizations hope that scientific developments will help mitigate some of this risk.

“The material stored in the gene bank is freely available to researchers around the world to develop new and improved varieties of the most important staple crops. CGIAR breeding programs will also continue to use Future Seeds samples to develop crops that are more climate and pest resistant, and more nutritious,”Marcela Santaella, head of genebank operations at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, told FoodNavigator.

“Currently, we have at least a dozen ongoing research projects related to the development of new resilient seed varieties targeting the conditions that farmers in the tropics already face or are expected to face in a changing climate. Future Seeds will expand our ability to collaborate with more scientists around the world. »

The Future Seeds facility builds on the Alliance’s decades of experience managing global collections. These covered tens of thousands of crop varieties and the Alliance had exceeded its capacity. The collection includes over 37,000 bean samples from 114 countries, 6,000 cassava samples from 28 countries and 22,600 tropical forage samples from 75 countries. Ranging from grasses to trees, forages are essential for small-scale livestock producers around the world.

Infrastructure to support innovation

Sustainability is at the heart of the new facility, right down to the design of the buildings. The new building offers 30% more storage space and integrates solar energy, thermal control and rainwater harvesting. If the application is successful, it could become the first gene bank in the world to meet the criteria for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification at the platinum level.

Related infrastructure includes robotics, drones and artificial intelligence to accelerate crop analysis to help scientists identify and incorporate traits into new varieties that can better cope with extreme conditions. The facility uses predictive AI models to help scientists identify habitats where significant crop biodiversity may exist, as well as cryopreservation for the long-term storage of crop genetic material at temperatures of -196C (- 320F). It also includes a digital knowledge bank where plant DNA sequence information can be viewed and analyzed.

These technologies can help accelerate adaptation efforts and preserve biodiversity, we were told.

Joe Tohme, Director of Crops for Nutrition and Health at CIAT, explained: “The new AI-powered technology linked to Future Seeds includes a rover developed by X’s Project Mineral. The experimental technology dramatically speeds up the collection and analysis of the data plant breeders need to develop new and improved crop varieties.

“We also use state-of-the-art predictive technology to help locate the last reserves of crop diversity and find the dwindling number of wild relatives, which may hold key traits for climate adaptation, productivity, pest resistance and disease and nutrition. This is essential to identify and preserve these species before their ecosystems are lost due to urbanization or environmental stress.

The seeds of success

In examining priorities for seed development, scientists are working on traits such as heat tolerance and resilience to water stress. Areas such as biofortification also offer the possibility of increasing the nutrient density of staple crops and addressing population deficiencies. This is particularly relevant to support the health of the population in the countries of the South.

All of this is vital for future food security.

“The Future Seeds genebank will allow scientists to continue to refine crop varieties for increasingly extreme conditions, including heat and drought tolerance,”​ Juan Lucas Restrepo, Global Director of Partnerships and Advocacy at the CGIAR and Managing Director of CIAT told us.

“By categorizing more of the collection for beneficial traits, we can also accelerate improvements in nutritional content. We have already produced iron-rich beans from samples in this collection, and some studies have shown that drought and heat stress, due to climate change, may reduce the amount of iron and other minerals in the beans. common foods such as beans.

To date, the open source retrospective catalog of plant material has enabled scientists to identify the genes that led to the development of 550 improved bean varieties for sub-Saharan Africa, including heat-tolerant and iron-rich beans. , as well as cassava. roots enriched with pro-vitamin A. The result is crop varieties that are better for people and the planet with improved diets and yields.

Future Seeds is one of 11 genebanks operated worldwide by the CGIAR network of agricultural research organizations. Restrepo stressed that these resources are vital to efforts to sustain the food system and strengthen environmental and social sustainability.

“We need all the tools in the toolbox to ensure that future agricultural production keeps pace with changing weather and climate. The latest IPCC report highlights that modern improved crop varieties play an important role in enabling smallholders, who produce up to 70% of the world’s food, to adapt to climate change and rising temperatures.

“Breeding hardier, more resilient and more nutritious crops can help address many of our global challenges, from food security and poverty to malnutrition.”