Agricultural revolution needed for 21st century

ACPFG student Jingwen Tiong checks the presence of barley zinc transporters in rice seeds. Photo by Cobi Smith.

ACPFG student Jingwen Tiong checks the presence of barley zinc transporters in rice seeds. Photo by Cobi Smith.
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Paper published in Science  [PDF]  (1.39M)

Friday, 12 February 2010

Substantial changes in agriculture will be needed to feed an estimated nine billion people living on the planet by 2050, according to a paper published today in Science by two University of Adelaide researchers.

Professor Mark Tester and Professor Peter Langridge claim that new breeding technologies are critical to increase crop yields and produce high-quality food for the world's rapidly growing population.

The two scientists from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, based at the University's Waite Campus, say new technologies to accelerate breeding and increase genetic diversity will help meet global targets of 70% more food by the middle of this century.

However, rapid global environmental change, increasing CO2 emissions and the use of food to produce biofuels will make these targets a challenge, the scientists warn.

"We need to produce more food, and of a higher quality, while at the same time reducing the use of fertilisers if we are to curb environmental degradation caused by greenhouse gases," Professor Tester says.

"Dynamic environmental and biotic threats will make this a difficult task and the current diversion of substantial quantities of food into the production of biofuels will also put additional pressure on world food supplies."

In order to meet the 2050 food production targets set by the recent Declaration of the World Summit on Food Security, the planet needs to produce an extra 44 million tonnes of crops per year over the next 40 years.

"This scale of sustained increase in global food production is unprecedented and requires substantial changes in our agronomic methods," Professor Tester says.

Plants more resistant to drought and salinity will need to be developed, and less fertiliser used to cut back on pollution of our waterways. Plants must also be bred specifically to enhance yield in stressed environments, according to Professor Langridge.

"The production of genetically modified (GM) crops is still a long way off in many countries due to political and bio-ethical issues but there is no doubt this technology will allow us to breed disease-resistant crops and herbicide-tolerant strains in the future," Professor Langridge says.

"New selection strategies for plants informed by sophisticated genetics and the use of computers to track and manage field trials are also improving crop management."

Developing countries have the most to gain from these new technologies, so they need to be economically accessible and readily disseminated, the scientists argue.

"It is imperative that resources and skills are freely shared between the technology developers and the users," Professor Tester says. "In the past there has been little interest from the developed world, and consequently little investment in these countries."

Professor Tester is the Director of Australia's newly-opened $30 million super greenhouse at the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus. Known as The Plant Accelerator, the research facility is the most sophisticated public facility of its type in the world, rapidly identifying plant varieties that will be successful.

Professor Peter Langridge is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics.

The published paper is part of a special issue in Science on food security, timed for the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting from 18-22 February in San Diego.

The special issue has a range of commissioned articles that cover food security on a global scale from different perspectives.


Contact Details

Professor Mark Tester
School of Agriculture, Food and Wine
Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics
University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 7159
Mobile: 0423 784 428

Professor Peter Langridge
Chief Executive Officer, Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics
Waite Campus
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 7368
Mobile: 0438 831 312

Mr David Ellis
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762