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FUTURE Seminar by Stuart J. Lucas

Designer Food: how will we feed the world in 50 years' time?

Stuart J. Lucas

A continual increase in food production is required to meet the needs of a growing world population.  Over the past 50 years, remarkable increases in agricultural productivity were achieved through the breeding of elite cultivars that produce high yields but are dependent on extensive use of fertilizers and irrigation.

A different approach is required to meet the challenges of the next 50 years, because the amount of land and water resources available for agriculture are limited, and agro-chemical inputs are undesirable because of their environmental impact.  Moreover, climate change is expected to have in increasingly negative impact on crop production in the coming decades.

In view of these challenges, a number of novel approaches have been proposed to meet the world’s dietary needs.  In this talk, we will discuss some of the major strategies now being pursued and which of them is most likely to succeed.  The most well-known of these, production of Genetically Modified (GM) Crops, has now been in field use for over 30 years, but remains controversial with consumers in many countries.  The relative merits and risks of classic GM technology will be assessed.  Furthermore, in the last 5 years a new set of techniques have been developed, which are exemplified by the CRISPR/Cas9 system and collectively referred to as ‘Genome Editing’ methods.  These promise to offer effective ways to improve crop genomes without the uncertainties associated with GM.

Apart from such biotechnological solutions, the focus of crop breeding is shifting from development of elite cultivars with limited genetic diversity, to developing pools of locally-adapted crop varieties that provide good performance in specific locations and resilience to environmental stresses.  Transferring such genetic diversity to cultivated varieties requires the identification and protection of genetic resources, and the use of high-throughput genotyping methods to understand their complex genetic interactions.