How can HE tackle food security in climate change era?

Higher education is blurring the boundaries of knowledge to address global challenges. One way is through promoting agricultural sustainability to address the grand challenge of global food security in the face of rising population numbers and climate change.

My PhD in plant science aims to execute cutting-edge fundamental and translational research that will have a real impact for farmers both in India and globally. It builds on my past and present academic work, research training and leadership skills.

Feeding the around 10 billion people who will live on the planet by 2050 with minimal environmental disturbance in the context of global climate change is one of the great challenges of current times. Further, being a resident of India, the second largest rice-growing nation in the world, I am aware of the problems faced by rice farmers and so wish to make a real difference via rice research.

Improving photosynthetic efficiency

I have a deep-seated interest in increasing crop yields by optimising and enhancing photosynthesis. Under controlled agricultural conditions of well-watered and fertilised soils, photosynthetic efficiency impacts crop yield. Improving photosynthesis is therefore widely recognised as both a challenging as well as rewarding aim if we wish to improve crop yields.

The greatest differences in photosynthetic efficiency are found across different species. For example, our global food staples like rice and wheat use C3 photosynthesis while crops such as sugar cane, sorghum and maize use a more efficient version of photosynthesis called C4 photosynthesis.

The C4 pathway is more efficient than C3 photosynthesis and leads to an increase in yield, water and nitrogen use of around 50%.

The biggest challenge when it comes to increasing yields by optimising photosynthesis is that plant species using these distinct pathways of C3 and C4 photosynthesis are not sexually compatible and so it is not possible to use cross fertilisation to introduce C4 photosynthesis into C3 crops via traditional breeding approaches.

My research has provided a promising solution to the problem of sexual incompatibility of varied species of cereals. We have recently developed a system that allows grafting of cereal crops. Grafting is the process of fusing tissues from two different plants so that the plants can grow as one.

Hence, the system we have developed provides an opportunity to graft species even if they are distantly related and we were able to generate interspecies grafts.

For my PhD, I will be working on developing inter-species hybrids. In more technical terms, the aim of my work will be to integrate the most efficient version of photosynthesis, known as the C4 pathway, in rice.

Converting rice to use C4 photosynthesis is expected to increase yields by 50% and also to enhance water and nitrogen use efficiency. This will be a step towards future-proofing rice in a context of climate change.

This research theme opens up the possibility of generating new species with higher photosynthetic efficiency and yields. If successful, this would provide an approach allowing photosynthesis in particular, and other complex traits more generally, to be improved via its introduction into key crops.

Blurring the boundaries

If we look at the bigger picture and outside experiments in research laboratories, higher education is providing a platform for the free exchange of scientific knowledge and resources to address the grand challenges of the future.

The opportunities higher education provides for meeting scientists in conferences and at symposiums leads to a blurring of the boundaries of knowledge and helps the formation of scientific networks both within disciplines and across disciplines.

These scientific networks are particularly beneficial as they lead to new understanding of basic sciences that can be put into experimental knowledge and can eventually have a translational impact.

Additionally, higher education is also leading to the building of strong connections between academics, industry partners and stakeholders who are interested in the translational implications of research.

A big pot of non-profit research funding has been reserved for scientific questions focused on addressing the challenges of global food security in the face of our changing climate. This has resulted in various convergent research themes, from work on enhancing photosynthesis to engineering climate-smart crops which are potentially future-proofed from drought, flooding, salt and with pathogen-tolerant traits.

Finally, collaborative initiatives within higher education are providing a platform for studying not just an organism but a complete ecosystem-interaction of all the elements in the food chain and how they interact with primary producers and consumers.

Higher education is leading to research solutions from the agricultural field to the food plate. There has been a great degree of collaborative work between food companies around striking a balance between optimising produce but also delivering recipes that cater to the appetite of the general public.

Last but not least, I am confident that higher education will help build interdisciplinary networks for the exchange of information as well as undertake excellent research to make a real impact on global food security and to address the implications of climate change on that security.

Anoop Tripathi is a Gates Cambridge Scholar doing his PhD in plant sciences at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.