How do you feed 10 billion people? 'Plant factories' could be the answer

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Scientists are exploring taking crops out of the field and growing them in warehouses to develop new varieties capable of feeding 10 billion people by 2050.

Plant factories key points

Key points:

  • Indoor ‘speed breeding facilities’ are growing 1,000 plants per square metre
  • Researchers are growing up to six generations of crops in a year instead of just two generations
  • The technology has been used on crops including wheat, barley, chickpea, millet, sorghum and quinoa

A review in the journal Nature Biotechnology has outlined efforts to harness technology like speed breeding, genome editing, growing crops indoors, and manipulating the temperature and atmosphere to fast-track new varieties of major crops like wheat and corn.

Lead author Lee Hickey, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland, said a suite of new technologies will increasingly be needed to feed the world as resources dwindle.

“Plant breeders want to deal with thousands of plants, so we need to find a way to really scale up these technologies and reduce the costs,” Dr Hickey said.

“Some of these crops, we’re growing them at a rate of 1,000 plants per square metre and setting up these speed breeding facilities indoors. We’re actually creating warehouses.”

By taking crops out of the field and growing them in controlled conditions, variables like soil, water, light, and even the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere can be controlled.

The technique builds on a speed breeding protocol developed by Dr Hickey that allows plant breeders to grow up to six generations of crops in a year instead of just two.

UQ research fellow Dr Lee Hickey says speed breeding blends well with other plant development techniques.

The technology has already reduced time it takes to select traits like disease resistance, drought tolerance and nutrition in critical food crops like wheat, barley, chickpea, millet, sorghum and quinoa.

“But it’s still just one tool in the shed for a plant breeder,” Dr Hickey said.

The authors hope that by speeding up the generation time for a crop like wheat, genetic improvements can be delivered to farmers quicker, producing more food with fewer resources.

Using all the ‘tools in the shed’

Speaking from St Petersburg where plant breeders from around the world were meeting to discuss the challenge of climate change and population growth, Dr Hickey said the world needed to produce an extra 60–80 per cent more food.

“It’s really important that we’re adopting all the tools in the shed when it comes to technologies,” he said.

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“And I would say that includes technology like GMO.”

While his work started in wheat, Dr Hickey said it was also important to adapt the technology to less-common crops often used in developing countries.

“As of next year we’ll be building facilities in places like India, Mali, Zimbabwe,” he said.

“This will help fast-track breeding for crops that haven’t had much investment like sorghum, millets and peanuts.

“These crops are so critical to nutrition and global food security in those regions.”

UQ research fellow Kai Voss-Fels is investigating how root structure impacts drought resilience.

Getting to the root of the problem

While Dr Hickey is keen to see more investment in a variety of crops, wheat was still one of the most important food sources providing 20 per cent of the world’s daily calorie intake.

But last year, wheat yields were down in Australia and Europe, which Kai Voss-Fels from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation said reaffirmed the need to quickly find wheat types which are robust and resilient.

“Farmers reported 30 to 70 per cent crop losses and some crop failures in Germany,” Dr Voss-Fels said.

Dr Voss-Fels was working with international plant scientists to investigate the root structure of drought–tolerant wheat varieties.

He said roots are important as they are the interface for water and nutrient intake.

“Roots are complicated because the plant can only produce so much carbohydrates,” he said.

“It’s always about resource allocation and how much energy a plant should put into growing roots or how much energy should it put into grain filling.”

Plant breeders are hoping that taking wheat out the field and growing it in warehouses will speed up the development of new varieties.

Dr Voss-Fels said an international effort, involving researchers from across Europe and Mexico, was testing some of the best wheat varieties.

“Basically we are taking important wheat varieties and making copy versions of them but with modified roots to then test under specific environmental conditions,” he said.

Overall, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) expects global wheat demand to rise with population growth, which the United Nations expects will reach 10 billion by 2050.