Plant breeding crucial to EU growth, but needs future support

A new EU report estimates that the plant breeding sector can continue to increase crop yields across Europe, but warns the sector needs the right regulatory environment and political support to achieve this.

The report – The economic, social and environmental impact of plant breeding in the European Union - was drawn up by German analyst HFFA Research, and funded by the European Technology Platform Plants for the Future. The work aims to quantify the contribution that EU plant breeding makes to the EU as well as the qualitative aspects.

It estimates that plant breeding contributes 74% of the growth in productivity across all the major arable crops grown in the EU. This is equivalent to 1.24% annualised growth in yields across the sector – on average, yields would be 16% lower without the ongoing genetic improvement.

The additional yield equates to 47 million tonnes of cereals and 7m tonnes of oilseeds over the last 15 years, extra volume that has helped in “stabilising markets, reducing price volatility and increasing the potential world food supply.” At the qualitative level, the extra production represents sufficient carbohydrate, protein and vegetable oil to feed between 100-200 million people.

The report estimates the financial value of plant breeding to EU agriculture over the last 15 years at €9 billion in social welfare terms and at over €14bn to the EU’s GDP – without this output the EU would be a net importer of the major arable crop commodities.  Since 2000, this progress has led to the creation of over 70,000 jobs across the whole agri food chain, while at farm level, the additional output from plant breeding is valued at €7,000 or some 30% of an average arable farm income.

If the EU was still a net importer of the major arable commodities, there would be a negative effect on the environment in the countries growing these crops. Therefore plant breeding can be said to directly contribute to preserving natural habitats while reducing carbon dioxide emissions and water use. The authors estimate this benefit as equivalent to 6.6 million hectares of Brazilian rainforest and 55 million cubic metres of water.

Plant breeding progress can be expected continue to improve arable crop yields at least at the same rate over the next 15 years, if not faster. However, EU regulatory and policy issues could have an impact here. Investment into new plant breeding technologies and varieties should be encouraged, not hindered, concludes the report, and its benefits need wider acknowledgment and political support.

“This study shows the importance of plant breeding innovation for the EU itself as well as its contribution to achieving overarching policy objectives like food security, environmental protection, and biodiversity preservation,” comments Garlich von Essen, secretary-general of the European Seed Association. “Now we have quantitative data that proves this. It should be seen as a call for action to policy makers to assure both a science policy as well as a supportive regulatory environment that fosters and drives future innovation. In short, this report shows that supporting plant breeding innovation is first and foremost a great investment into our economic as well as our societal future.”