Transforming agriculture

Research seeking ways to increase yields for farmers worldwide has received $45 million to build on pioneering work in plant science to help feed the world

The five-year reinvestment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) will enable the researchers to continue their work to address the global food challenge.

Led by the University of Illinois, Lancaster University is one of the key global partners on the project and one of only two UK partners.

Transformative work by scientists in the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) research project, has already demonstrated yield increases of 20%.

“Today’s report on world hunger and nutrition from five UN agencies reinforces our mission to work doggedly to provide new means to eradicate world hunger and malnutrition by 2030 and beyond,” said RIPE Director Stephen Long, the Gutgsell Endowed University Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the University of Illinois. He is also a professor of crop sciences at Lancaster University, UK.

“This investment is timely. Annual yield gains are stagnating and means to achieve substantial improvement must be developed now if we are to provide sufficient food for a growing and increasingly urban world population when food production must also adapt sustainably to a changing climate.”

Last year, in a study published in the journal Science, the team demonstrated that one of these approaches could increase crop productivity by as much as 20% – a dramatic increase over typical annual yield gains of one percent or less. Two other RIPE pipelines have now led to even greater yield improvements in greenhouse and preliminary field trials.

“Our modelling predicts that several of these improvements can be combined to achieve additive yield increases, providing real hope that a 50% yield increase in just three decades is possible,” said Professor Long. “With the reinvestment, a central priority will be to move these improved photosynthesis traits into commodity crops of the developed world, like soybeans, as well as crops that matter in the developing world, including cassava and cowpeas.”

Professor Martin Parry, the RIPE principal Investigator at Lancaster University said: “It is incredibly exciting to be working on a project of this scale, particularly because our work should make a difference bringing about some real improvements to crop efficiency within coming decades.  Globally, the problems we face are so big, that it would be naïve to think that any single research group or university could solve them alone. RIPE brings experts together to increase our ability to make rapid progress.”

Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, also Lancaster University, said: “Our job at Lancaster is to focus on the properties and regulation of an enzyme called Rubisco, which plays an important role in photosynthesis in plants, enabling them to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which they depend upon to live and grow.  We will focus on variation in Rubisco between different varieties of Cowpea, Cassava and Soybean, and use a modelling approach to work out which will perform best in particular environments. This will enable us to develop varieties that are tailored to be highly productive in different areas of the world, including Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Article source: Lancaster University