Crop adaptation to climate change as a consequence of long-term breeding
Major global crops in high-yielding, temperate cropping regions are facing increasing threats from the impact of climate change, particularly from drought and heat at critical developmental timepoints during the crop lifecycle. Research to address this concern is frequently focused on attempts to identify exotic genetic diversity showing pronounced stress tolerance or avoidance, to elucidate and introgress the responsible genetic factors or to discover underlying genes as a basis for targeted genetic modification. Although such approaches are occasionally successful in imparting a positive effect on performance in specific stress environments, for example through modulation of root depth, major-gene modifications of plant architecture or function tend to be highly context-dependent. In contrast, long-term genetic gain through conventional breeding has incrementally increased yields of modern crops through accumulation of beneficial, small-effect variants which also confer yield stability via stress adaptation. Here we reflect on retrospective breeding progress in major crops and the impact of long-term, conventional breeding on climate adaptation and yield stability under abiotic stress constraints. Looking forward, we outline how new approaches might complement conventional breeding to maintain and accelerate breeding progress, despite the challenges of climate change, as a prerequisite to sustainable future crop productivity.