Shortage of plant breeders makes feeding growing world difficult

Masters of Plant Breeding student Jessica O'Connor is able to study at Massey University, while working as a forage ...
Massey University

Masters of Plant Breeding student Jessica O'Connor is able to study at Massey University, while working as a forage breeding technician at AgResearch.

Plant breeders are in short supply as the human population heads to an estimated nine billion in 2050 and they face one of the most pressing issues of our time – feeding the world.

New Zealand-grown produce feeds over 40 million people, according to New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, with more than 95 per cent of agricultural production exported.

AgResearch Forage Genetics team senior scientist Dr Zulfi Jahufer said New Zealanders had always been innovators because of "the little land area we have to cultivate, we were forced to innovate.

"However, there is a shortage of breeders both domestically and overseas, which means you will be in hot demand, but I think there's a misconception that its only for molecular biologists or agricultural scientists. 

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"In reality you can come from both and excel in this degree and use what you've learnt to fill the gap in the industry."

He said breakthroughs made in forage crops could also be applied to other related industries such as flowers and apples and there was an opportunity for more collaboration.

"Plant breeders need to be innovative thinkers because the ground is literally changing underneath their feet as they work – the land changes, the climate changes, we face challenges of water scarcity, climate change brings new pests and diseases, increase in air pollution and, of course, the need for improving food quality."

Plant breeding is the art and science of changing the traits of plants in order to improve growth and yield across environments. Humans have been doing that for more than 10,000 years and today, selection is based on an understanding of plant genetics. 

Masters student Jessica O'Connor is studying at Massey University's Plant Breeding course while working as a forage breeding technician at AgResearch.

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"I was always curious about plants, I wanted to know why and how they grew in a certain way.

"As a plant breeder you need to be curious and be able to use science to get you the answers.

"The great thing about my plant breeding work at AgResearch is that I'm not just a cog in someone else's experiments. I can have an idea, suggest my own project and, if it's good, the team assists you to make it happen."

"If you want to bring a new product to the farmer, the consumer, the industry, you can do it, but you'll struggle without the right tools.

"If you want to change the game, you have to learn about previous research – the processes involved, the different problems from the many perspectives and fields. The plant breeding qualification has given me that."

Course co-ordinator Dr Jennifer Tate said plant breeding used to be based on physical observation which was a long and costly process.

"In the past, plant breeders had to rely on their observations by sight to determine which plants might yield the best variety. Now, with marker-assisted breeding, we can identify natural diversity in traits of interest through DNA analysis. It is much faster and can sometimes cut out months or years worth of work to select a trait in a particular variety using molecular markers."

There is a Government-led goal to double the value of New Zealand food exports by 2025. Pastoral, agricultural and biotechnology companies are working to develop better methods and technologies for more efficient and resilient crops.

 

 - Stuff

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