Doležel: We won't be able to feed the world without genetically modified crops

2. 8. 2022
Climate change has multiplied the demands on world agriculture. One way to avoid food shortages is to grow genetically modified crops. A number of countries have already moved in this direction, the European Union is preparing to change the legislative framework. According to plant geneticist Jaroslav Doležel, there is no other way, otherwise Europe will become a museum of agriculture. Doležel stated this in connection with the Brno genetics conference on the 200th anniversary of the birth of the founder of genetics, Gregor Johann Mendel.

Climate change, which we are all experiencing, is one of the greatest challenges facing scientists today. The growth of the world’s population requires an increase in food production, while the cultivation of agricultural crops is threatened. “In order to ensure enough food, it will be necessary to use all the options available to us, and one of them is the cultivation of crops adapted to the new conditions. But this requires varieties with new properties that can only be obtained with difficulty using classical plant breeding. We are talking about new breeding techniques, the key tool of which is the modification of hereditary information. Fortunately, today we have genome editing methods that allow us to precisely change the structure of the DNA molecule,” said Doležel, who works as the scientific director of the Center of the Region Haná for Biotechnological and Agricultural Research and coordinates the Food for the Future program as part of the AV21 Strategy of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

New breeding techniques allow not only the further improvement of current varieties, but offer the possibility to repeat domestication in a short time and to obtain cultural crops from wild predecessors again, but with properties that current crops do not have. It is also realistic to domesticate wild plants that tolerate drought or salty soil and that have not yet been cultivated by humans. However, the use of genetically modified plants is prevented by legislation, which also applies to the European Union.

Recently, however, the situation is starting to improve. “It is about time, because the number of countries where the cultivation of new varieties obtained by genome editing is not regulated is rapidly increasing, and Europe was in danger of becoming a museum of agriculture. Genetically modified crops are now grown in 29 countries of the world and on almost an eighth of the world’s cultivated land. The success and other prospects of these crops are stimulating the establishment of new biotech companies that are coming to market with crops that have beneficial properties for both growers and consumers. The European Commission has finally realized the unsustainability of this situation and plans to create a legislative framework for new genomic techniques,” said Doležel.

The new legislation should be approved within the next year. “We simply cannot do without genetic modifications. Cultivation of crops with a modified genome and resistant to diseases and pests will make it possible to dramatically reduce the burden of pesticides on the environment and will be one of the key measures leading to sustainable agriculture. If we can also limit fertilization with industrial fertilizers, I think it will be possible to label all foods obtained from such varieties as organic food,” added Doležel, who follows up on Mendel with his work. Among other things, by founding a new branch of genomics, so-called chromosome genomics. Using a unique method of chromosome isolation, he contributed to reading the complex genomes of economically important crops, including wheat. Chromosome genomics is widely applied in the study of the structure and evolution of the hereditary information of plants and in the mapping and isolation of important genes.

According to Doležel, who is a MENDELU graduate and will receive an honorary doctorate from his alma mater in the fall, Mendel was a genius in that he used mathematics to solve the biological problem of heredity, something no one had thought of before him. “Mendel was the prototype of the modern scientist, and his approach to research is a great lesson for contemporary science as well. When we are faced with an unsolvable problem, we can be inspired by Mendel and use a new, non-traditional procedure,” added Doležel.

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