Graeme Hammer 2015-02-23 23:28:26
Achieving global food security has many facets. While socioeconomic and political issues, such as development of and access to markets, improving infrastructure for transport of agricultural produce, and stable governance systems, are all critical, we must also produce more food and do it sustainably in both developed and developing countries. Research will be essential to this challenge, especially for removing impediments to improved production for resource-poor farmers in developing countries. This includes market development, access to agronomic knowledge, and investment in the technology and reliability of national support systems. We must also improve the sustainability of production systems in developed countries by becoming more efficient in the use of energy, water, and nutrients. In all cases, maintaining the health of soil and water resources is paramount. In my own area, crop ecophysiology and modeling, I work in developing and developed economies with a focus on crop design and management for improved crop adaptation. I’m particularly interested in potential technologies for advanced agricultural systems because that is where higher food prices—which are likely— will drive the research that increases productivity in the coming decades. Crop growth and yield are the ability of the crop to capture resources—light, water, and nutrients—and the efficiency with which the crop converts these resources into biomass and harvestable product. Crop growth at critical developmental stages largely determines the proportion of the crop that ends up as yield, especially for our dominant cereal crops. So far, our interventions, through genetics and crop management, have targeted—and mostly optimized—the capture of resources, its timing through the crop life cycle, and the proportion of total growth allocated to harvestable product, all of which determine yield and profit. Because the approaches to improving resource capture by field crops are better understood, if not fully known or implemented, than the approaches to improving resource use efficiencies, we should now focus more research effort on the latter. The substantial differences in resource use efficiencies between crop species (e.g., corn vs. sorghum) strongly suggest that these efficiencies can be improved. One way to do this is through the genetic design of plants; however, to date, there has been little genetic impact on the fundamental resource use efficiencies of plants. Here, then, is a breakthrough opportunity for science: Can we redesign plants to improve their resource use efficiency? And by doing so, can we take advantage of the rising level of atmospheric CO2? As a first step, measuring and understanding the physiological and genetic basis of the existing variability in resource use efficiencies is critical. Fortunately, there has been a continuing revolution in genetics and the technologies for genome mapping, sequencing, and editing. Along with this is an emerging impetus for high-throughput phenotyping to amass voluminous data on plant attributes. And that is where we face a transdisciplinary conundrum. Improving the resource use efficiency of crops could be a transformational improvement in global agriculture, but achieving that transformation will require a broad, transdisciplinary effort. Advanced phenotyping and genotyping technologies are appropriate tools, but the transformation will also require know-how about what to measure, how to measure it, and which genetic designs to use. No single discipline can achieve this alone. In fact, as we face a historic challenge, the traditional separation of disciplines that is entrenched in scientific culture is restricting our progress. A new culture of connectivity is required, giving us the ability to operate effectively and openly across disciplines—engaging with, and challenging, each other. Feeding the world in 2050 demands it. Graeme Hammer, Professor of Crop Science and Director, Centre for Plant Science, Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation and ARC Centre of Excellence in Translational Photosynthesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; email@example.com.
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