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Will New Wheat and Barley Genomes Help Feed the World?

Agricultural Technology, Food Production, Future of Food

Will New Wheat and Barley Genomes Help Feed the World?

The Dirt

Scientists from the University of Adelaide’s Waite Research Institute, with help from other researchers, have discovered a new genetic variation in both barley and wheat through genetic sequencing. This global effort to breed higher-yielding crops can help feed a growing population.

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By the time I am 60 years old in 2050, our global population will have increased to 9.7 billion people. That’s an additional ~2 billion human beings that will need to be fed. With over 275 million hectares (680 million acres) of irrigated land globally, researchers note that to grow enough food for our projected population increase, we will need crops to produce more output on existing land.

Experts estimate that to provide for the 2050 population forecast, annual cereal production will need to rise by 50% to about 3 billion tonnes. To do this, we must implement plant breeding technologies as one part of a comprehensive solution for global hunger.

A Genetic Breakthrough in High-Yield Crops

The big news, as reported in the journal Nature, is that researchers have sequenced new variations of genomes in barley and wheat. The international team includes scientists from the University of Adelaide’s Waite Research Institute, along with the 10+ Genome Project, spearheaded by Curtis Pozniak, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Pozniak is in collaboration with the International Barley Pan Genome Sequencing Consortium, led by Nils Stein, professor at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research.

, Will New Wheat and Barley Genomes Help Feed the World?

Associate Professor Ken Chalmers at Adelaide University’s Waite Research Institution inspecting wheat grain.

What does that mean for society today? Because barley and wheat are staple crops on a global level, scientists may have found a way to produce the high yield necessary to feed more mouths within our lifetime. And it’s not just a boon to cereal production; these discoveries bring us one step closer to unlocking the entire gene set, otherwise known as pan-genome, in wheat and barley, which has ramifications for all future research in plant genomics and cereal farming.

Here’s how the research unfolded: Scientists conducting field tests in Chile found a way to increase the amount of protein (expansin) in the plants, which controls growth rate. The result: grains that were up to 12% larger than usual‚ with higher yields as well. In the past, there had always been a tradeoff between grain size and number.

This is especially good news because wheat provides about 20% of the calories consumed by humans, and the current yield is increasing at only about 1% annually — a far cry from the 50% needed to supply the population by 2050. Field results were a critical component, as they helped prove the effectiveness of these variations, by showing that the plants could perform under typical agricultural conditions. The teams of researchers are now working to make this research available to farmers and the greater food industry to help inform their decisions on crop production.

Consumer Acceptance is Key to Survival

Currently, more than 800 million people worldwide are chronically hungry, and about 2 billion are nutritionally deficient. This is a huge public health concern. What’s more, fertile land and water supply are becoming scarcer, and production increases are falling off — amplifying the need for more productive land.

United Nations World Food Program, Will New Wheat and Barley Genomes Help Feed the World?

Gene-editing technologies can only address global hunger and land and water availability if they’ve gained consumer trust. GMOs and gene-editing are some of the most studied plant technologies. They also have the capacity to increase yield and lower chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, provide crops with better resilience to poor climate conditions, ward off pests, reduce post-harvest loss, and produce more nutrient-dense foods.

And yet, even with 30 years of research and countless commercial applications proving that gene-edited or GMO crops are as safe as conventionally grown crops, there is still hesitation from mainstream culture.

What if you were to wake up at 60, 70 or 80 years old, and — instead of looking at flourishing families — you’re looking at 900 million people going hungry, land once used for playgrounds now dedicated to growing food, and the population still multiplying? While this may seem like a stretch, if we don’t accept plant breeding technology and realize its fundamental impact on food security, we may not meet increasing global food demands. More and more people will go hungry.

It seems like a luxury to even discuss consumer food production preference when people in developing countries are dying of starvation. With COVID running rampant, Africa is unable to make use of new plant technology, including GMOs, due to bottlenecks caused by the pandemic. This, as Ruramiso Mashumba, an African smallholder farmer shared with us, is not a matter of preference but truly, a matter of life and death.

So, while our issue here in the United States remains a social challenge of widespread consumer adoption, developing countries are struggling with political barriers, preventing them from using lifesaving technology.

We hope to see more plant technologies such as this emerge and we hope that consumers do their research and come to understand the safety and vital nature of these developments.

The Bottom Line

What will 2050 look like? Your decisions today have an impact. Understanding the safety of new plant technologies, and the good they can do, is of chief importance to feeding generations to come.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line