Scientists have figured out how to seriously upgrade productivity and boost crop yields, with a new study showing increases in plant growth of up to 20 per cent.
In a result which could help humanity to meet its burgeoning demand for food, researchers with the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and the University of Illinois have been able to genetically alter tobacco plants so that they are more responsive to changes in sunlight and cloud cover, causing the huge jump in crop yields.
“Tobacco was used as the model crop plant in this study because it is easy to work with, but we’re working to make the same modifications in rice and other food crops,” says Krishna Niyogi, of Berkeley Lab’s Division of Molecular Biophysics and Integrative Bioimaging and study co-author. “The molecular processes we’re modifying are fundamental to plants that carry out photosynthesis, so we hope to see a similar increase in yield in other crops.”
Experts predict that food production and food security will be key concerns over upcoming decades, as global warming causes increased instability, even as the global population continues to expand. Worldwide food demand is projected to increase by 60 per cent above 2006 levels by the year 2050, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Drought, decreases in rainfall, floods and extreme weather events are all forecasted to negatively impact agricultural production worldwide, including crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry.
While the FAO urges that the food production industries themselves need to develop “climate-smart agriculture,” which does its part in countering climate change at the same time as it encourages practices that respond to ongoing changes to local environments and ecologies. “The agriculture sectors can contribute to mitigation, first, by reducing their emission intensity … and avoiding the further loss of carbon stored principally in forests and soil,” says the report.
Boosting crop production without increasing emissions will help.
Scientists have found that crucial to plants’ use of the process of photosynthesis, which converts sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into food, is their ability to turn off the process when they experience an excess of sunlight, at which point the extra energy is expelled by the plant as heat. But once the extra energy is released – with the onset of cloud coverage, for instance – plants take a long time to rev up the photosynthesis engine once again, effectively cutting into potential growing time.
Researchers were able to increase the expression of three genes involved in the protective energy release mechanism, with the results showing an increase of between 14 and 20 per cent in plant growth. “My attitude is that it is very important to have these new technologies on the shelf now because it can take 20 years before such inventions can reach farmer’s fields,” says Stephen Long, plant biologist and crop scientist at Illinois. “If we don’t do it now, we won’t have this solution when we need it.”
Food prices in Canada rose by four per cent last year, with prices for fresh vegetables climbing a remarkable 18.2 per cent and meat prices up five per cent, according to Statistics Canada.