Farming in the Anthropocene by improving photosynthesis

January 18, 2019

What happened?

American researchers recently documented how they have managed to improve the energy efficiency of the natural process of photosynthesis in a tobacco plant. By doing so, they made the plants 40% more productive. The evolutionary “mistake” in many plants is that the enzyme called rubisco, which has to convert CO2 into sugars, absorbs oxygen instead of CO2 from the air about 20% of the time. If that happens, the enzyme produces a toxin which the plant then has to eliminate. This “mistake” thus costs energy that the plant could otherwise use to grow, resulting in “lost calories” in case of edible plants. The scientists genetically modified the plant by transforming it with some bacterial genes.

What does this mean?

The researchers expect that their technique can also enhance the biomass of other crops and they thus claim that it may help to close the current and future calorie-gap. According to the World Resources Institute’s new report, to meet the global food demand in 2050, farmers need to produce 56% more crop calories than were produced in 2010. Although the results are promising, the experiment is also controversial, as it used “foreign” genes, which may lead to unforeseeable and undesirable side-effects. After all, there might be a reason nature did not correct its “mistake” in the first place.

What’s next?

While these findings would enable us to grow plants faster, this does not mean these will be more nutrient-rich. Earlier, we noted how higher levels of CO2 in the air have made plants grow faster, but have also made them less nutritious. From a food-perspective, improving plants by making them more nutrient-rich is needed besides increasing biomass. Still, faster-growing, non-edible plants can also help us fight climate change and local air pollution. Hedges along roads, for instance, have proven to result in cleaner air.

About the author(s)

At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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