Seed World

Forget The Avengers! Plant Breeders are Saving the World

Is the climate changing, with less rain in your region? Tell it to the plant breeders so they can select for more drought tolerance! Are you seeing different pests and diseases that never appeared before in your region? Tell it to the plant breeders so they can select for more disease resistances in the new varieties. Is an evil villain closing your gas supply, and you desperately need more energy? Tell it to the plant breeders, so they can breed varieties better suited to produce biogas.

You catch my drift: plant breeders are cranking out many new plant varieties, that help us with the immense challenges we must overcome. And cranking it they are: the annual number of new varieties arriving on our European plates over the past few years is around 3,500 new plant varieties. That is almost 10 new plant varieties per day that are added to the toolbox of farmers to grow and on the plates for consumers to enjoy. TEN new varieties per day! I find those numbers astounding.

With these large numbers of new varieties coming to Europe every ear, you may wonder how much work it actually takes to create a new plant variety? Well, it depends a little bit on the crop the plant breeder is working on, but on average it takes between 8 and 12 years to create a new plant variety. However, and here’s the risky part of the whole process, when plant breeders embark on this long process of creating a new variety, they don’t know yet what consumers will desire in 8-12 years from now. Consumers’ wishes change frequently and it seems more frequently than in the past. Not only does the product have to taste good, look good, be reasonably priced, but it also must be produced sustainably. This means that preferably and if at all feasible, the crop is produced with as little crop protection products as possible, while respecting the environment in terms of soil, water and biodiversity. Adding this all up tells us that the investments that plant breeders are making are considerable, upfront, and high risk.

I’ve written about this before, but I feel we can’t stress this enough: plant breeding is providing enormous benefits into the agricultural chain, and to society at large. Several research papers have investigated specifically this aspect. For example, Lence et al in 2009 concluded that farmers get a USD $6 benefit for each USD $1 spent on private sector research. And DTZ in 2010 took it a bit broader and found out that for each £1 invested in plant breeding there is £40 in added value across the wider economy (considering higher yields & input savings at farm level). A 2016 study by HFFA showed that since 2000, for EU arable farming, genetic crop improvements generated an additional social welfare gain of 9 billion € and added over 14 billion € to the EU GDP. Plant breeding provided secure employment and an average increase of income of 7000 € which is 30% of the annual income of EU arable farmer. Oh, almost forgot, plant breeding also created an additional 70,000 jobs in the arable sector.

And in 2022, Noleppa wrote that due to plant breeding in major arable crops in the EU over the past two decades, yields per hectare as well as arable production have increased with a little over 1 per cent per year. On average, crop production would have been over 20 per cent lower in 2020 without genetic improvements since the turn of the millennium. Plant breeding also improves the EU agricultural net trade balance. Without plant breeding progress in the past 20 years, the EU would have become a net importer of all major arable crops in 2020, including wheat and other cereals.

So, if you’re looking for modern day superheroes, just look at your plates, and realize the ongoing heroic work of the plant breeders of this planet, not just Europe, but all around the globe. Further down in this issue, you will find an article about some of those plant breeders that made a bigger than life contribution to the world. Take a look at the front cover and try to guess their names. And for the hard-core history buffs, try to guess their countries and time period they lived in.

I’m going to leave you with a slight adaptation of a song that keeps humming in my head:

If there’s something strange

In your own corn field

Who you gonna call?



If your crops won’t grow

And it don’t look good

Who you gonna call?



If you’re seeing bugs

Running through your field

Who you gonna call?


Read More:

The Perfect Synergy: How Plant Breeding is Enabling the EU Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies

Protecting your Assets

Plant Breeding Vital to the Economy, Environment

Reducing Global Hunger — Utopia or Reality?