The growing human population and a changing environment have raised significant concern for global food security, with the current improvement rate of several important crops inadequate to meet future demand1. This slow improvement rate is attributed partly to the long generation times of crop plants. Here, we present a method called ‘speed breeding’, which greatly shortens generation time and accelerates breeding and research programmes. Speed breeding can be used to achieve up to 6 generations per year for spring wheat (Triticum aestivum), durum wheat (T. durum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), chickpea (Cicer arietinum) and pea (Pisum sativum), and 4 generations for canola (Brassica napus), instead of 2–3 under normal glasshouse conditions. We demonstrate that speed breeding in fully enclosed, controlled-environment growth chambers can accelerate plant development for research purposes, including phenotyping of adult plant traits, mutant studies and transformation. The use of supplemental lighting in a glasshouse environment allows rapid generation cycling through single seed descent (SSD) and potential for adaptation to larger-scale crop improvement programs. Cost saving through light-emitting diode (LED) supplemental lighting is also outlined. We envisage great potential for integrating speed breeding with other modern crop breeding technologies, including high-throughput genotyping, genome editing and genomic selection, accelerating the rate of crop improvement.