Reengineering Photosynthesis

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Reengineering Photosynthesis

Nothing is more important to human health and well-being than an adequate supply of nutritious food. Over the last 50 years, malnutrition has invariably been the result of failures to make food accessible, not its global production. In fact, over this period, we have seen large surpluses of all the major crops, and that’s why shortages have remained a distant concern for most of the global population. The most important primary foodstuffs, in terms of millions of metric tons, are corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans. These four crops account for about two-thirds of the calories consumed worldwide. Moreover, the average global yield per unit area of land, for each of these crops, has more than doubled since 1960.

So, why are we discussing “food security” in 2020? One reason is that these global surpluses in staple crops have led to a steady decline in spending on plant science research and crop improvement, evident at the global level.

But that shift in priorities may prove short-sighted. The global population is expected to increase from just over 7.3 billion today to 9.5 billion by 2050, a 30% increase. Furthermore, an increasing proportion of the population will be urban and middle class, resulting in diets shifting increasingly from staples to processed foods, upgraded with more meat and dairy products; these require large amounts of primary foodstuffs to produce. For example, 10 lbs of cattle feed are required to produce each pound of live cattle. Thus, an increase in urban population will result in an increased demand for high-quality animal products, requiring an increase in crop production that is substantially faster than that estimated based solely on the projected population growth. This trend is expected to continue, and experts predict that the world will need 80% more primary foodstuffs in 2050 than in 2020.

So, is our current rate of increase in crop yields sufficient to meet this rising demand? That doesn’t appear to be the case. If current rates of crop yield improvement per hectare are simply maintained into the future, supply will fall seriously below demand by 2050. And the resulting rise in global food prices is expected to have the largest impact in the poorest tropical countries, which also have the highest population growth. A compounding factor is that improvement in subsistence crops in these tropical countries has tended to lag global average increases in the four leading crops. For example, the global average increase in yield per hectare of cassava, a major staple for sub-Saharan Africa, between 1960 and 2010 was 63%. This is less than half of the 171% increase for wheat over the same period. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the rate of improvement in yield even for our major crops is stagnating or even moving into reverse, in some areas of the globe...

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