Most crops were first domesticated about 13 000 to 11 000 years ago. Humans are dependent on crops for survival, and from the beginnings of agriculture have been energetically involved in developing crops that better serve their needs (Allard 1999). During the last decades breeding has contributed approximately a 50% contribution to increasing the world's food crop production. However, plant breeding only began to adopt a scientific approach in the 1900s, when Mendel's hybridization experiment was rediscovered. Mendelian genetics and the development of the statistical concepts of randomization and replication had considerable impact on plant breeding methods (Hallauer et al. 1988). In spite of the fact that scientific crop breeding has only existed for one century, it is a discipline that is developing very quickly. The major objective of crop breeding programs is to develop new genotypes that are genetically superior to those currently available for specific environments. To achieve this objective, breeders employ a range of selection methods and technologies (Hallauer et al. 1988; Falconer and Mackay 1996; Allard 1999).
As the world's population continues to grow rapidly and becomes more demanding, the pressure on resources is increasing, whilst climate change poses further challenges. The balance between the supply and demand of the major food crops is fragile, fueling concerns for long-term global food security. The need to accelerate plant breeding for increased yield potential and better adaptation to drought and other abiotic stresses is an issue of increasing urgency. The global population is facing a common challenge of providing safe, nutritious and affordable food, given the constraints of land, water, and energy and in the face of climate change. The sustainable exploitation of biological resources for a secure and healthy food supply, animal feed and a wide range of sustainable materials and technical products will require careful husbandry of land and a shift to systems that produce more from less in a sustainable manner. With this common goal, OPTICHINA (Breeding to Optimize Chinese Agriculture), an EU-China partnership initiative in crop breeding was launched in June of 2011. The first project workshop was held shortly after the launch, and focused on new technologies and methods in crop molecular breeding. This special issue of Journal of Integrative Plant Biology publishes key presentations and topics addressed in this workshop.