According to the data from the United Nations, global food production must double by 2050 to meet demand from the world’s growing population, which is expected to increase from 7 billion to 9.6 billion over that period. As populations grow, there is a reduction in land available for cultivation due to growth in infrastructure, which can lead to a decrease in food crop planting and food production. In addition, changing weather patterns and increased pressure on scarce water resources also contribute to the factors that make increasing worldwide food production a challenge.
In the 20th century, the critical link between anticipated population growth with food security and the urgent need to improve agricultural yield was a well-recognized humanitarian and political issue.
The Green Revolution
Norman Borlaug, the "Father of the Green Revolution," received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation. Key elements of the Green Revolution involved the modernization of management techniques, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, development of high yield agriculture varieties of cereal grains, and distribution of synthetic fertilizers, hybridized seeds and pesticides to farmers.
Arguably, Borlaug’s most important field work in food crops was done in Mexico starting in the 1940s where he led a 16-year effort using plant breeding techniques to produce semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties that increase food productivity.
In the 1960s, anxiety was rising in India about the ability of the country to feed its citizens based on estimates of significant population growth by 1980. Borlaug’s team introduced new semi-dwarf wheat varieties to India, Pakistan and other developing nations. From 1965 to 1970 both India and Pakistan saw dramatic increases in food yield and both nations became self-sufficient in wheat production. In many respects, the goals of the Green Revolution were met as both developed and developing countries dramatically boosted food yield and largely met the near-term challenges of global food crop production.
Biotech crops ushered in another wave of improvements to food productivity. In the 1980s, advances in molecular biology and genetic engineering led to the development of the first transgenic plants. One of the first areas of interest was the use of a microbial gene called cry from B. thuringiensis (Bt) to confer insect resistance to plants. In 1995, the EPA approved the Bt potato and many other crops followed. Another area of industry interest was the development of “Roundup ready” agricultural crops utilizing a microbial gene that rendered the plants resistant to the glyphosate herbicide in Roundup. In 1996, the first genetically modified herbicide tolerant soybeans were commercially launched. Research efforts continue to introduce traits into food crops and to “stack” traits to improve agricultural yields primarily through pest resistance, as well as to introduce traits that increase tolerance to drought, flooding and heat, and thus raise food productivity. In 2015, there were 444 million acres of genetically engineered food crops planted worldwide. The current estimate for annual sales of genetically modified seeds is approximately $20 billion.
Where does Yield10 fit into 21st Century Agriculture?
Current approaches in the industry that focus on improving stress tolerance are important for beginning to address global food security, but alone can’t double food yield. Yield10 is tackling the challenge of meaningfully boosting food yield through the approach of engineering new metabolic pathways in plants and by identifying new targets for gene editing in plants. Early results in the model crop systems of camelina and switchgrass have been encouraging, and the Yield10 team is continuing to generate proof points and advance research and development in key agricultural crops. Yield10 stands ready to address the global food security challenge of the 21st century.