Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Super-sized crops

One of the issues facing the Earth of the future that I touch on in Horizon is food security.

With global population set to soar between now and 2050, particularly in third-world countries, it's a real problem working out how we can feed everyone. Science, of course, has a way of finding solutions, but these can throw up a host of other technical and ethical issues.

An article in the current New Scientist discusses a new process that could supercharge plants by swapping out their naturally evolved photosynthetic 'engine' with a genetically engineered replacement that will increase crop yields by 25% and reduce the amount of irrigation required.

It sounds like a miracle cure, but there has long been resistance to Genetically Modified (GM) crops due to the fear that GM plants escaping into the wild could wreak unforeseen havoc with the biosphere.

Certainly supercharged plants that escape would rapidly outcompete wild varieties for space and sunlight, but rising food pressures may mean we're forced to take that chance. There's also the important fact that supercharged plants will suck up more CO2 as part of the photosynthetic process, which could have a significant effect on climate change.

One possible solution to the problem is to supercharge wild varieties of plants as well, in order to level the playing field while reaping the benefits.

Given the alternative, this is an issue to watch closely.

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