New crops?

Image: Frank Vincentz/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Frank Vincentz/Wikimedia Commons.

Back at the UKPSF conference, marker-assisted selection (MAS) was explored by Ian Graham (Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, University of York) in considering molecular breeding in novel crops. MAS is based not on the observable traits themselves – e.g. colour – but the genes associated therewith. A MAS approach thus allows selection of plants with desired characteristics, and often far earlier than the trait itself may be observed (provided the markers are known…). It can thus speed up breeding of ‘novel’ crops.

Amongst projects Graham summarised – such as development of anti-malarial artemisinin from Artemisia annua, and biodiesel production from Jatropha curcas – was mention of Stevia rebaudiana, which produces stevioside, a glycoside up to 300 times sweeter than sucrose, but which is calorie-free. Graham also reminded us that in our search for ‘new’ crops, we shouldn’t ignore the existing, but easily overlooked so-called ‘orphan crops’: ‘crop species which have been under-exploited for their contribution towards food security, health (nutritional/medicinal), income generation and environmental effects’.

A timely – and humbling – plea to make more of what natural variety and variation we already have.

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