The world cannot rely solely on high tech, genetic modification to generate the extra food needed to satisfy a human population projected to peak at about 9.5 billion later this century, according to keynote speakers at the XVIII International Botanical Congress being held in Melbourne this week.
It will take a range of strategies, including identifying and making better use of land which is under-producing, and breeding more resource-efficient crops.
“By identifying agricultural land that has not yet reached its full cropping potential,” says Prof Kenneth Cassman of the University of Nebraska, “we can direct yield intensification efforts—including crop genetic improvement and soil, nutrient and water management—to where they will be most productive.”
This could avoid a massive expansion of the land needed for crop production at the expense of carbon-rich and biodiverse rain forests, wetlands and savannah.
“It’s going to require people of many different disciplines to tackle this critical issue of food production,” says Dr Richard Richards of CSIRO Plant Industry.
“We need to combine advances in genetic technologies with opportunities for better crop management. That’s what will make the biggest impact on crop production.”
The speakers were concerned that despite the huge challenge of feeding 35 per cent more people in the coming decades, funding for agricultural research is declining worldwide.
Dr Richards argues genetic improvement in major crops will be important, but that breeding techniques which integrate improvements across the whole plant are likely to be more significant than targeted single-gene approaches.
“Genetic engineering has already made major contributions to pest and disease resistance, and contributes to improved management practices, but is unlikely to result in significant advances in yield or tolerance to stress.”
Food security in a world with biophysical limits has been a major topic of discussion at the Congress.
Other contributors have included Dr David Fischoff of the Monsanto Company, who spoke about technological innovations for tomorrow’s crops and Prof Jeff Amthor of the University of Sydney, who talked on the biochemical modifications we could make to improve crop production.
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