Modern crop breeding began around 1900. – Tigist Masresra, a technical assistant, working in the Highland Maize Breeding Program at Ambo Research Center, Ethiopia.
Photo: CIMMYT/ Peter Lowe


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Farmers already started to modify plants physically and genetically in order to achieve better yields several thousand years ago. The Director-General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Cimmyt) shows how demands on plant breeding have changed over the last four decades and which methods the international research community is developing to master present and future challenges.

Breeding of maize and wheat was begun by early farmers as part of their domestication of naturally-occurring grass species, to better feed their families and communities. Maize comes from a wild ancestor known as teosinte that still grows in Mexico and which farmers began to use at least 7,000 years ago. Bread wheat resulted from natural crosses between emmer wheat and goat grass, likely in the Northern Caspian Sea area some 12,000 years ago. Farmers modified these proto-crops physically and genetically by selecting for bigger grain, better yields, spikes that stayed together rather than dropping seeds, and other qualities of interest.

Modern crop breeding began around 1900, with the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s laws regarding genetics and inheritance, together with the emergence of formal agricultural research systems in many of today’s high-income countries. One key outcome was the development of hybrid maize in the early 1900s; its rapid adoption in the 1930s created much excitement about the potential of genetics to revolutionise agriculture.

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