Strong support to feed the world through boosting photosynthetic potential

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Strong support to feed the world through boosting photosynthetic potential

Published on
October 26, 2017

We are all now familiar with the challenge we face regarding feeding the future world population. With the changing dynamics of food consumption and the growing global population, we essentially need to double the production of our main food crops. This will require another agricultural revolution. By tackling one of the weakest links in the chain – photosynthesis – we have the potential to facilitate this second green revolution. That was the clear take-home message from the recent workshop held on October 17th in Brussels. The world needs such a ‘Man on the moon’ photosynthesis programme and Europe must take the lead in this.

This workshop 'The next green revolution', organised by Wageningen University & Research, brought together experts and decision-makers from across Europe to discuss Photosynthesis 2.0 - an initiative to establish a highly ambitious and wholly multi-disciplinary research programme needed to realise the potential of this underexploited approach. Photosynthetic efficiency is exceptionally low – the conversion of incident light into chemical energy in plants is generally in the 3-6% range. Just a few percent more could have revolutionary consequences.

The enormity of food scarcity

The meeting was attended by a diverse group of leading researchers, industrialists, Parliamentarians, NGO’s and various national representatives. In the morning session the overall problem was sketched. In the opening lecture, Ken Giller illustrated the enormity of the problem of food scarcity in Africa which has far reaching consequences. Beyond hunger this has led to local conflict and the current population migration to Europe. Other speakers covered aspects of climate change impact predictions, food versus fuel in the biobased economy and issues related to CO2 / water availability.

Crop improvement strategies

The morning session was rounded of by a hugely inspiring presentation from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. Their current programme on translating fundamental research on photosynthesis into crop improvement strategies has already resulted in real (12-20%) yield increases – and this is just the first step (Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1126/science.aai8878). This proof–of–concept success was the perfect bridge to the afternoon session of the workshop.

The potential of optimized photosynthesis

Barend Verachtert (EC DG Research) detailed the envisaged strategies for Food2030 and the future FP9 programme. He highlighted the central goal of designing truly sustainable farming systems covering the four key components of nutrition, climate, circularity and innovation. This dovetails with many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. And the focus of this workshop matches perfectly with all of these targets. Other speakers emphasised the huge potential and innovative nature of approaching crop production challenges via photosynthesis. Furthermore, additional advantages of such an approach were identified: concurrent improvements in water use efficiency can be expected and enhanced C fixation will reduce atmospheric CO2 levels and boost soil carbon content. 

Unique novel opportunities

Current high-throughput genetic, chemical and physiological screening approaches are now ripe for exploitation. These now offer unique novel opportunities to link photosynthetic physiology to genetics and hence open the way towards targeted breeding strategies delivering improved varieties with enhanced photosynthetic potential. Fundamental science is needed in association with translation into practice and hence linking up to current initiatives such as that supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has clear value and will significantly broaden current perspectives as required to meet the enormity of the goals envisaged.

The photosynthesis race is on

The scientific challenges are clear and can, and should, be tackled. However, as moderator Jan Huitema MEP pointed out during the final discussion: we also need to have the right policies in place to be assured of success – and we need to be able to engage the breeding industry on the one hand while on the other, ensuring that developing countries who have the greatest need for food security can properly benefit. The complexity should not be underestimated and must be included in any future programme design. Citizen engagement from the outset is also paramount and must become an integral component to ensure ultimate success. The photosynthesis race is on. All eyes are now on the EC to pick up the baton to allow European scientists to provide the necessary level of input required to boost food security issues and especially in those regions where it is most desperately needed.

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