Plant breeding will play a crucial role if we are to make better use of the biobased properties of plants, says Luisa Trindade, Biobased Economy research leader at Wageningen UR Plant Breeding. New techniques will play a crucial role in this context. The tomato is an excellent example of a crop that can provide a major contribution to the biobased economy.
The crops of the future are going to have a different look. “We need to grow more diverse products with fewer inputs - to do more with less,” Luisa Trindade says. As an illustration, Trindade points to the potential of the tomato, which has seen the yield, taste and colour of its fruits improve significantly over years of classical breeding. “A good tomato plant produces beautiful red and flavourful tomatoes, certainly – but in the future, we will be able to do much more than that.”
From waste to valuable product
While the results are promising, plant breeding has yet to contribute to optimising tomatoes for the biobased economy. This is about to change, however. “We will have to take a fresh look at the tomato,” Trindade says. “There are many more options if we focus less on the fruit alone. Tomato leaves and stalks are currently treated largely as waste, ignoring the fact that useful proteins and other components can be isolated through extraction and used for valuable nutritional, pharmaceutical or industrial applications.”
The same applies to tomato fibres. “It's great that many trays and other containers on which tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables are presented for sale in supermarkets, say, are actually made from tomato fibres.” The utilisation of residual materials is not the only possibility being examined; changes in the fibrous structure of the plant mean there are many other applications in the offing. Stems and leaves will then be considered as high-quality raw materials rather than waste. The Calvin Klein tomato jeans have come a step closer.
Let us consider for a moment lycopene, to which many vegetables and fruits owe their red colour. A range of health claims have been made about this renowned bright red carotenoid, including a reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer and cervical cancer. “Much research still remains to be done of course,” Trindade says. “But in a few decades we may very well engineer the tomato plant according to a very different balance. For instance, we may be able to increase the levels of lycopene or other health-promoting components.”
As breeding becomes more common, it may affect yield. “In the future, we might not harvest ten kilograms of tomatoes, for instance, but seven kilograms of tomatoes and three kilograms of leaves and stems from which new proteins, fibres, pigments and other valuable molecules are extracted.”
Luisa Trindade thinks that we will come to consider plants more as useful units. “Instead of one or two main products, we will look at all the components present and several different purposes. And we will also make more grocery lists, as it were, that specify what we need and how we get the building blocks. A list like that might state ‘for protein we need mainly corn and potatoes, and a little tomato’.”
More breeding tools
The implications for the toolbox of plant breeders are far-reaching in Trindade’s visionary mind. “One thing is for sure: all these existing and new breeding tools can give a major boost to the realisation of a biobased economy. We will understand more and more about the genetic diversity of plants and, in particular, the interactions between the various components. We will acquire more knowledge on the communicating vessels that make up a plant – something that we sorely lack now. If, for instance, we wish a plant to produce more protein, we have to know what the consequences of the corresponding change will be on other properties, such as starch or oil content.”
The ultimate goal is for the plant breeding to contribute to a fully circular biobased economy, concludes Trindade. “The plant will then become a biological factory in which everything is used, there are no waste streams, and the use of water, energy, artificial fertilisers and pesticides is minimised. We aim to develop a new generation of breeding tools that enable us to analyse the complex interactions between yields and the functional qualities of the different components.”