Elevating optimal human nutrition to a central goal of plant breeding and production of plant-based foods

Plant Sci. 2009 Nov;177(5):377-89. doi: 10.1016/j.plantsci.2009.07.011.


High-yielding cereals and other staples have produced adequate calories to ward off starvation for much of the world over several decades. However, deficiencies in certain amino acids, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids in staple crops, and animal diets derived from them, have aggravated the problem of malnutrition and the increasing incidence of certain chronic diseases in nominally well-nourished people (the so-called diseases of civilization). Enhanced global nutrition has great potential to reduce acute and chronic disease, the need for health care, the cost of health care, and to increase educational attainment, economic productivity and the quality of life. However, nutrition is currently not an important driver of most plant breeding efforts, and there are only a few well-known efforts to breed crops that are adapted to the needs of optimal human nutrition. Technological tools are available to greatly enhance the nutritional value of our staple crops. However, enhanced nutrition in major crops might only be achieved if nutritional traits are introduced in tandem with important agronomic yield drivers, such as resistance to emerging pests or diseases, to drought and salinity, to herbicides, parasitic plants, frost or heat. In this way we might circumvent a natural tendency for high yield and low production cost to effectively select against the best human nutrition. Here we discuss the need and means for agriculture, food processing, food transport, sociology, nutrition and medicine to be integrated into new approaches to food production with optimal human nutrition as a principle goal.

Keywords: biotechnology; breeder's dilemma; green revolution; human evolution; malnutrition; plant genetic engineering; plant pathology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Biotechnology
  • Breeding
  • Crops, Agricultural / chemistry
  • Crops, Agricultural / genetics*
  • Crops, Agricultural / standards
  • Food Supply
  • Food Technology
  • Food, Fortified
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Nutritive Value
  • Plants, Edible / chemistry
  • Plants, Edible / genetics*