In early 2008, a spike in soya bean prices sparked widespread protests in Indonesia. Food riots in Mexico, Morocco and elsewhere followed and served as a wakeup call for governments. The world’s population is expected to hit 9bn mid-century and a report from the Royal Society last year predicted changes in climate and consumption patterns will add further pressure with 50–100% more food required. Action is needed, and quickly.
To fill the food gap, plants will have to provide more food, but they will have to do it without more chemicals, fertilisers and water that powered the fi rst green revolution. ‘Better crops that grow more sustainably,’ are required, according to David Baulcombe from the University of Cambridge, UK, who chaired the Royal Society’s report, Reaping the benefits (C&I, 2010, 9, 14). ‘I am optimistic we can do it, but we will need new scientifi c developments.’ Last year, the US Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) launched an initiative to fund plant scientists. It was joined by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the largest non-biomedical funder.
We felt this was a place we could make a difference, says Vicki Chandler, chief programme offi cer for the Foundation’s science programme. ‘The gap in funding for plant sciences is there in many countries, relative to biomedical research, but is outstandingly large in the US,’ she says. Baulcombe attended HHMI workshops and argued that plant science underpins the provision of food, but also fundamental discoveries in biology. ‘There are lots of examples where basic discoveries in biology were made in plants. You can think about Mendel and his peas, so the laws of genetics came from plants.’
‘Plants are amazing biochemical factories and that is one reason they have more genes than animals,’ says Chandler. This is why they have been such great sources of key drugs over the years, she adds. Chandler points out that RNA interference, which may have major applications in agriculture and disease research, was discovered in plants.
Investment in agricultural research has fallen in recent decades and, as real food prices also fell, complacency about food production set in. Experts say we need sustainable intensification where yield is assessed not just per hectare, but also per unit of nonrenewable inputs and its impact on the ecosystem.
‘You are looking to improve water, nitrogen and fuel-use efficiency of crops and at the same time dramatically improve yields,’ says Julian Little, communications and government affairs manager for Bayer CropScience. The best way to deal with these challenges is to produce better seeds, he says. One exciting area is nitrogen use efficiency. ‘The trouble is that plants aren’t good at taking up nitrogen,’ Little explains. ‘If you bring nitrogen-efficient plants to the market, you reduce the costs of growing a crop and, from an environmental perspective, you reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’
Agriculture currently accounts for around 70% of global water use. Together with Monsanto, BASF has developed the first drought-tolerant maize plants. According to Jurgen Logemann, director of research & global in-licensing at BASF: ‘It is designed to provide farmers with yield stability during periods when water supply is scarce by mitigating the effects of drought within a corn plant.’ Field trials in the US met or exceeded the 6–10% target yield enhancement, he says, and the maize is expected to hit the US market in 2012. Syngenta has also developed maize seed that will use available moisture more efficiently, improving yields by up to 15% under drought conditions.
Baulcombe says that advances in pest management and disease resistant crops give him most hope for the future. BASF recently developed a new potato variety, which can protect itself against late blight. Farmers usually use fungicides to fight late blight, which can destroy 20% of a potato crop. ‘A special wild potato in Central America is able to defend itself against late blight by using a defence mechanism triggered by two specific genes,’ says Logemann. These genes were inserted into European potato varieties and they are expected on the market in 2014/15.
Monsanto says that genetically-modified (GM) crops are part of the answer to feeding the world and says its technology has cut broad spectrum insecticide use. ‘Other research will also bring forward products that will have benefits to consumers as well, including improved nutritional profiles in vegetables and fruits,’ according to David Fischhoff of Monsanto. Whereas the first GM plants mostly delivered herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, the next generation will deliver higher yields and cope better with unfavourable conditions, such as drought, heat, cold and pests, he notes. According to industry sources, 25 countries grew 134m ha of GM crops in 2009.
Baulcombe praises Monsanto as having done a fantastic job developing herbicide and pesticideresistant crops. ‘GM is not the sole answer, but it is an integral part of new technologies in crop science,’ he says. The Chinese government has begun with GM cotton and will soon move into food crops, he predicts. ‘It is perfectly safe technology,’ Baulcombe says. ‘There is a danger that the world outside Europe will just move on and ignore Europe.’ Syngenta closed down its GM unit in the UK and moved it to the US. It recently established another centre in Beijing, with 200 people.
Janet Cotter of Greenpeace says genetic engineering in the lab is fine, but releasing GM crops is not. ‘Genetic engineering is a technology looking for a problem to solve,’ she says. ‘We’ve heard about drought resistance crops, particularly maize, but when we look at it we think it can be done with marker assisted selection,’ she says. Cotter says Monsanto’s drought-tolerant maize uses a clumsy system and that ‘they don’t really understand how it works’.
Little says European rules surrounding GM were devised at a time of wine lakes and butter mountains when politicians were trying to curb production. He says the market should decide whether or not GM crops should be grown. Green groups, agribusiness and plant scientists do agree on one thing: that plant genomics should help farmers deliver more for less. Wheat production in the UK has gone from 2t/ha in the 1950s and 1960s to 8–10t/ha, but has levelled off in the last five years, says Janet Allen, director of research at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Other countries are nowhere near those levels. But wheat yields are still nowhere near the 14–20 t/ha that is often quoted as possible.
The BBSRC published a draft wheat genome in summer 2010 and Allen believes this is going to prove very helpful to researchers. ‘We were talking to breeders as to what traits they wanted to see and we will be announcing a big wheat grant soon,’ says Allen.
Little says new varieties of wheat, both GM and non-GM, are most exciting ‘because there simply hasn’t been enough science done on improving wheat yields for the last 20 to 30 years’. Yield improvements have gone up around 1%/year around the world, but demand has grown at nearly 2%, he says. ‘We are putting more land into wheat production and that is not sustainable over the long term. That’s why companies are starting to look at wheat more seriously.’
Another area of research is photosynthesis as it is a relatively inefficient process. A photosynthetic pathway called C3 is at the root of the problem. The inefficiencies occur when an enzyme mistakenly takes up oxygen rather than carbon dioxide in C3 photosynthesis. The problem is most acute in tropical and semi-tropical regions, due to higher temperatures.
Julian Hibberd, from the University of Cambridge, UK, is looking at a more efficient pathway called C4, used by maize and other plants. He is trying to modify inefficient photosynthetic crops, such as rice and wheat, to use this more efficient pathway. ‘One way is to build up the C4 pathway in rice through GM technology. The second way is to screen for mutants in rice, which show changes in leaf anatomy that are consistent with C4 photosynthesis. The overall aim is to see whether it is feasible to install C4 in rice.’
Hibbert’s work is part of an international collaboration centred on the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. He says it will take at least 15 to 20 years for such work to bear fruit. Such long-term thinking is practical. Most agribusiness products, such as herbicides and pesticides, take 10 years to come to market.
Baulcombe predicts a steady stream of new scientific discoveries over the next five to 10 years that will translate into breakthrough technologies. The HHMI foundation hopes its programme will send a strong message about the importance of plant biology. ‘We are constantly evaluating which areas might be in need of sustained high level funding to push the quality of science forward,’ explains Robert Tjian, president of the HHMI. ‘And we ask: are there really high quality scientists in that field? I think the answer to both of those questions, the need and the quality, are there for plant biology.’
Anthony King is a freelance journalist based in Belfast, UK.