New institute to develop 'smart breeding' method for more resilient and climate-adaptive agriculture

July 6, 2023

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) will contribute 15 million euros to the CropXR research programme into 'smart breeding' of more resilient crops. NWO’s grant marks the start of the new Dutch institute, which will integrate plant biology, computational modelling, and artificial intelligence into 'smart breeding methods'. Those will be used to develop crop varieties that are more resilient to climate change and less dependent on chemical crop protection. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is partner and participant in CropXR.

In CropXR, four Dutch universities and dozens of plant breeding, biotech and processing companies will collaborate on basic scientific research, data collection and data sharing, education, and advancing broad application of the results.

CropXR brings together a large number of Wageningen research directions and groups working on them. It gives us a unique opportunity to map the fundamental mechanisms underlying crop resilience.
Richard Immink

More sustainable and climate-proof agriculture

“The fact that NWO makes a substantial investment in PlantXR, a ten-year research programme central to CropXR, demonstrates its confidence in the mission of the new institute,” says Guido van den Ackerveken, Scientific Director of CropXR. “I am very proud of the collaboration of so many different partners and stakeholders in this programme. Both universities, companies and stakeholders representing the green sector feel united in contributing to our mission: making crops more resilient, sustainable, and climate-adaptive. Thanks to the NWO-contribution, we can now start our research needed to reach our common goals and make this journey a great success.”

Miriam Luizink, chair of the Programme Committee of NWO’s KIC innovation program, said: “With Long-Term Programmes, NWO offers long-term funding for strategic research by public-private consortia. It provides substantial funding, which offers a powerful boost to the development of a scientific field. In this particular case, it gives PlantXR, as part of CropXR, a better chance to successfully develop resilient crops that can remain productive even under harsh environmental conditions.”

Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is closely involved in the CropXR Institute as a participant and co-funding partner. "CropXR brings together a large number of Wageningen research directions and groups working on them. It gives us a unique opportunity to map the fundamental mechanisms underlying crop resilience: from the level of the molecule, cell, tissue and plant to crops in the greenhouse or field. It is great that this will include the societal impact of our approach, based on big data, artificial intelligence and simulation models. We are enormously looking forward to taking up this challenge together with other universities, universities of applied sciences, leading private companies and the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV) after several years of preparation," said Richard Immink, professor of 'Plant Reproduction' at WUR.

Integrating plant biology, computational modelling, and AI

In the research program co-funded by NWO, academic research groups and mainly Dutch plant breeding companies will collaborate in developing a 'smart' method that will enable breeders to make crops more resistant more quickly. By innovatively integrating modern plant biology with artificial intelligence (AI) and computational modelling, they will learn to understand and predict how plants, using a complex interplay of multiple hereditary factors, can better withstand stress conditions. Using this knowledge, they will then develop stronger, more resilient varieties of several model crops.

At present, developing more resilient plants is very difficult and takes a very long time. The newly developed 'smart breeding' method is anticipated to speed up the work of both traditional plant breeders and those who apply new breeding technologies.

Infrastructure, education, social dialogue, and marketing

In addition to research, CropXR will invest in shared data infrastructure. Together with universities of applied science it will also work to promote training for professionals. It will advance broad application of its 'smart breeding' method by interacting and working with breeding companies and other stakeholders such as consumer organisations, environmental and development NGOs, both in the Netherlands and abroad.

The sooner a wide range of seeds, tubers, and other starting materials for more resilient crops will be available in various markets, the sooner farmers and consumers will benefit.

More resilience urgently needed

Speeding up the development of extra-resilient (XR) crops is urgently needed worldwide because many crops are faced with more extreme conditions such as heat, drought, flooding, and pathogens, that are all more extreme because of climate change. At the same time, environmental regulations are becoming stricter, which will reduce farmers’ ability to treat their crops with chemical fertilizer, pesticides and other plant protection products. For agricultural production to become sustainable in coming decades, it will need crops that are more resilient.