While the first crops were domesticated some 9-10,000 years, scientific crop breeding only began in the early 20th century, following the discovery of the genetic basis of plant inheritance by the Czech monk Gregor Mendel. During the 20th century great advances in crop yields, quality characteristics and disease resistance were achieved. But progress was often painfully slow and uncertain. Successful varieties remained in the ascendant for decades before better ones finally emerged. Classic plant breeding has been described as “crossing the best with the best – and hoping for the best”.

In the last fifty years a cascade of further discoveries have revolutionised plant breeding. The technologies now available include marker assisted breeding, transcriptomics, tissue culture, doubled-haploid production, gene editing and creation of transgenics (genetic modification). The latter is currently commonly limited in practice to the use of genes present naturally in a given genus, but can involve the use of genes from another genus – plant, animal or even microbial. So far no commercial transgenic plants have been released in the UK. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to today’s agricultural challenges. The scientific techniques needed to create the next agricultural innovations will vary for each crop and we believe the appropriate technology should be chosen to fit a specific market need on a case-by-case basis.

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