UI reseachers make crop yield breakthrough

Estimated 70% more food needed by 2050

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS - UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS -- Researchers at the UI say they've made a breakthrough in crop science. It's called the RIPE project.

The team published a study stating they've figured out how to increase crop yields dramatically. Researchers believe by 2050, farmers will need to produce at least 70% more food to feed everyone on Earth.

Crops, like any other plants, grow by taking in sunlight. This team decided to see if they could make that happen more efficiently.

It isn't what you expect to see growing in Central Illinois: a fresh batch of tobacco plants. The funny thing is, it's not even a crop this team is trying to boost.

"What we tried to change around was the way plants react to light."

They're trying to solve a global problem. In about 30 years, the world could be home to nine billion people.

"Chances are, within a couple of decades, we are no longer going to produce enough food for all of those people."

Johannes Kromdijk and Kasia Glowacka are two RIPE researchers. They say, to feed the future, we either have to start putting crop fields in places we don't necessarily want them, or grow bigger crops. They chose option two and this is how they're doing it:

"If you walk into a room in the middle of summer, you go from a light day to a dark room. You take your sunglasses off and your eyes are adjusting and you know, you start to see better again," says Kromdijk.

It turns out plants do the same thing, but the team says they're not very good at resetting when the sun comes back out. So they started experimenting with different protein combinations.

"We are very excited that most likely there's one modification that we saw in tobacco can lead to a similar effect in other crops," says Glowacka.

The published results show, if other plants react like tobacco does, they could be one step closer to solving world hunger.

"In that case, it was 20 percent bigger plants," says Glowacka. "Bigger roots, bigger leaves, and bigger stem."

"This is huge," says Kromdijk. "I mean, if you get a couple of percent increase, it's really quite something, but this increase is really a game-changer."

This new development is expected to raise concerns among the non-GMO community, but the majority of scientists say modified food is safe to eat.

So how long until Illinois fields are filled with much bigger corn? The research team says if they continue to produce good results, it could still take about 15 years before farmers are on the same page. That's because of government regulations and required testing.

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