Challenges to feeding the seven billion and beyond – Part 2: Role of scientific innovations

This is the second in a series of articles to review some of the current information on challenges to feeding the nine billion world population in 2050.

Production agriculture has become a fertile ground for technological innovations. From small farmers who tweet the availability of their U-pick crops, to dairy farmers who rely on robots to milk their cows. Farm operators have discovered that they can benefit immensely from advanced technology. With scarcity of inputs, competition for land and water combined with climate change, farmers are realizing that technology can help towards sustainable production protecting the biodiversity and environment degradation. Emerging technologies, such as biotechnology, powerful sensors for precision farming and diagnostics, waste treatment, food preservation and genetically modified crops have the greatest impacts on production agriculture.

Genetically modified crops, or GMOs, despite some initial controversy, have revolutionized agriculture. In the future, scientists will be able to develop new varieties that can lead to a dramatic reduction in the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Scientists have already developed vitamin and iron-rich crops that are much needed by the children in sub-Saharan Africa. Another potential has been the development of climate-resistant crops that can withstand environmental stresses such as drought and flooding. Industry watchers predict that seed genetics will be a sustainable pathway to boost food supplies.

With advanced genomic insight and molecular markers, scientists will be able to identify and transfer complex traits that require more than one gene, such as water utilization. There is also realization that yields need to be driven not just through breeding, but also improved agronomic practices. Scientific advancements have led to the development of GPS-based precision planting tools and site-specific practices.

The opponents of GMO believe there may be long-term risks associated with transferring genes across species. However, no major adverse human health effects have occurred to date due to the consumption of GM crops, nor are any anticipated in the future. Ultimately, it is the nature of the society, as much as science, that will determine what options it will choose to adequately feed its people.

Greater understanding of the soil microbes and nutrient recycling would enable scientists to unleash vast quantities of the nutrients that are present in the soil, but not currently available to plants. Rather than depending on chemical fertilizers, farmers will be able to feed and propagate soil microbes that will, in turn, release nutrients that are currently tied up in the soil. The same approach can be taken to identify microbes that will enable N fixation in non-leguminous plants.

At the cellular level, scientists are beginning to unravel why photosynthesis in plants is not as efficient as it could be. Photosynthesis is the process by which green plants as primary food producers are able to produce food by combining water and carbon dioxide in the presence of sunlight and chlorophyll. Even though photosynthesis has evolved over millions of years, one bottleneck has been an enzyme known as RuBisCO. Scientists in the United States and the United Kingdom have found that some naturally occurring green algae have developed a genetic mechanism to create high concentrations of carbon dioxide inside their cells, “turbo boosting” the enzyme RuBisCo to work at maximum efficiency.

By transferring such genes to crop plants, scientists hope to significantly increase crop yield. This work will provide new insights into how plants and algae utilize carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the long term, these advancements will have a bearing on new ways to improve crop productivity as well as mitigate climate change.

Through scientific innovations from the cellular level to advanced field technologies, modern agriculture is developing new ways to feed the increasing population with the limited resources of land, water and nutrients.

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