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The Future Postponed: Plant Sciences

by Mary Gehring, MIT

Growing more food, and more nutritious food, for a hungry world is again an urgent challenge. Productivity needs to increase by at least 50 percent.

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Fifty years ago, rapid population growth in developing countries was outracing global food production, creating the prospect of mass famine in many countries. What forestalled such a tragedy were the agricultural innovations known as the Green Revolution, including the creation of higher yielding varieties of wheat and rice. While world population grew from 3 billion to 5 billion, cereal production in developing countries more than doubled; crop yields grew steadily for several decades. By some estimates, as many as 1 billion people were saved from starvation.

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Now the world faces similar but more complex food challenges. Population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2040, but little arable land remains to be put into production. So productivity needs to increase still further, by at least 50 percent. Moreover, the Green Revolution did not specifically address the nutritional content of the food produced— and today that is critical, because of widespread malnutrition from deficiencies of iron, vitamin A, and other micronutrients. Traditional breeding approaches, and even the kind of genetic engineering that has produced more pest-resistant commercial crops, will not be enough to meet these challenges: more fundamental innovations in plant science—integrating knowledge of genetic, molecular, cellular, biochemical, and physiological factors in plant growth—will be required.

Mary Gehring is an Assistant Professor of Biology and Member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Excerpted from The Future Postponed, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015

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