Increased public-sector involvement in crop development -- much of which has been ceded to companies over the past decades as seeds evolved into patentable commodities -- will be needed to apply increasingly cheap biotech improvements to subsistence crops like cassava, for example, Baulcombe said.
"For many of those [crops], there may not be an incentive for companies to get involved," he said.
Such innovation is required. Food security will be one of the pressing issues of the next half-century as the world's population rises by several billion. That many hungry mouths will necessitate higher yielding and better crops, and advanced GM crops will need to be a part of this mix, the Royal Society said.
However, since many developing nations lack the apparatus to regulate GM crops, molecular breeding may be the quickest way to carve out immediate gains for at-risk populations, like frequently flooded rice farmers in Asia, scientists say.
Asian rice farmers get little warning before floods.
More than 3 billion people in the world depend on rice as their primary food, and nearly one-fourth of the world's crop is grown in rain-fed lowland plots prone to seasonal and sustained flash floods. Even the most common, hardy varieties of rice will die after four days spent underwater, starved of the carbon dioxide and oxygen they need for photosynthesis.
Each year, lowland floods in South Asia destroy 4 million tons of rice, causing chronic food insecurity for subsistence farmers across the region. More than 15 million hectares -- an area the size of Bangladesh -- is commonly stricken, and the lost rice is enough to feed 30 million people, said Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis.
Now imagine if this rice could maintain its traditional qualities, like its robust yield, but could survive flooded conditions for weeks.
"[That] rice has the potential to fill this incredibly huge gap," Ronald said.
Using molecular breeding, Ronald and Dave Mackill, a crop scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, have done just that, developing multiple strains of rice that can survive for more than two weeks in flooded conditions. Varieties of the submergent-resistant rice -- nicknamed "scuba rice" -- have already been introduced in India and the Philippines, with expansion into Bangladesh expected within a month, Mackill said.
"This work has been going on for a long time, and this is the time that we're getting a lot of results in [rice] that can go to the farmers now," he said.
The mass deployment of scuba rice is the culmination of more than a decade of research for Mackill, who long ago identified a gene in rice's DNA, known as Sub1A, that seemed to strongly influence how a weedy but flood-resistant rice variety in India -- rejected because it had a low yield and poor taste -- could survive so much longer than normal varieties.
With molecular backcrossing, Mackill, Ronald and their many colleagues were then able to breed this overexpressed gene into rice already popular in India, such as the legendary Swarna variety. (IRRI has adapted nine varieties so far.) Previous attempts to backcross this trait with conventional breeding had always failed, reducing Swarna's taste or yield.
"Conventional breeders can only bring in one trait at a time that are very simple traits," Ronald said. The exciting aspect of submergence was that they could bring in what is known as a "quantitative trait locus" -- a more genetically complex region that influences measurable changes to the crop. "This is one of the very first instances where we could tackle" such a locus, she said.
Rice has proved to be the best grain to be manipulated with marker-assisted breeding, Mackill said. It has a limited number of genes -- it was the first crop to have its genome sequenced, earlier this decade -- and the individual genes tend to exert strong influences. Such individually powerful genes can be rare in other plants.
"That's one of the most difficult things to find in any crop," Mackill said.
Partly because other grains are not so easily influenced by a few genes, molecular breeding is not as popular in public breeding circles as was hoped a decade ago, when it first arose. Besides scuba rice, most other published applications have been used for disease or pest resistance, which are genetically simpler to breed.