Seeds represent a promise – a promise to the farmer who plants them that they will grow robustly into a successful crop. But, more broadly, it’s a promise to billions of people around the world that they will have a healthy and secure future, thanks to widely available, affordable and nutritious food.
Behind these seeds are decades of research and hard work to make them better – hardier, more nutritious and higher yielding – through painstaking plant breeding. And, increasingly, there is something else behind these seeds that is vitally important to success: data, and a lot of it. Data in amounts that are almost impossible to fathom, and yet we are harnessing this data, learning from it every day and applying it in exciting new ways, with extraordinary results.
To understand how data has become so critical to food production, we need to cast our gaze back to Mendel in the 1860s, for the introduction of formal data gathering and analytics that would eventually shape the future of agriculture. Mendel combined measurement of traits in the field with the beginnings of genetics – perhaps the earliest combination of what is driving so much change today. His insight to record quantitative outcomes of pea color or form and link to the concept of a causative gene, provided the foundation of modern molecular plant breeding.
Fast forward to the 1920s, DuPont Pioneer’s founder Henry A. Wallace ignited a revolution in crop improvement with the commercial introduction of hybrid systems for plant breeding. In order to document the benefits of this approach, he combined field observations with careful data analysis to demonstrate the superior rate of genetic gain through hybridization. In the US, maize yields were stagnant at around 1.57 metric tons/hectare (25 bu/ac) from Mendel’s time to Wallace’s, but since then yields have continuously increased and are now up seven-fold.
Today, it’s no longer enough just to feed a particular community or country or region. Modern agriculture is worldwide in scope. People everywhere are demanding more varied and healthier diets. And the challenges facing agriculture today are global as well – mass migration, climate change, resource limitations, adverse environmental impacts and population growth, including a rising middle class in places like China and elsewhere in Asia.
At Pioneer, we are pursuing a digital strategy that is designed to help us and our customers better meet growing worldwide needs. Our vision is to capitalize on a new era of innovation to lead the digital transformation of the agriculture industry.
The first maize genome sequence was published in 2010, the result of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar global project. Today, we can sequence more than a dozen maize genomes every single day. Year-by-year we are advancing our understanding of both genomic architecture and genomic function of all the crops we develop. This scale and throughput are critical to tomorrow’s tailored crop improvement.
Now let’s turn to considering how genomic data will drive agricultural productivity through CRISPR-Cas genome editing. Here we’re on the cusp of something truly revolutionary in plant breeding efficiency and seed quality. We are using this capability primarily to develop very familiar products that are comparable to – or even indistinguishable from – the products of conventional plant breeding.
Overall, we will leverage genomics data and apply CRISPR-Cas to deliver seed products with characteristics of greater environmental resiliency, productivity and sustainability. And the growing number of sequenced crop plants and multiple varieties of these crops is facilitating these applications.
The story of agriculture starts with the promise of a tiny seed. Today, that tiny seed has more potential than ever before, thanks to the power of data-driven genomics and digital agriculture, helping us turn that promise into a beautiful and bountiful future for all.