Current estimates by the United Nations (UN) suggest that global agricultural production needs to increase by about 70 per cent between 2005 and 2050 to satisfy the growing demand for food and agricultural products.
However, innovative work by researchers at the University of Münster and Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology, Germany, could provide the answer to increasing food productivity and yields.
Their work has identified key regulatory genes in plants that ‘switch-off’ flowering and allow plants to live longer, grow faster and become bigger.
The teams at Münster and Fraunhofer made the breakthrough after discovering a mutant tobacco plant which showed permanent vegetative growth, no aging, evergreen leaves and late or no flowering.
Analysis revealed that the plant has a special protein which inhibits the flowering process. The result is a plant which can grow up to eight metres, compared to a normal size of 1.5 metres. It also has around 120 leaves, compared to 20 in a normal variety.
The discovery creates a new approach to farming and is an alternative to genetically modified (GM) foods and traditional methods of improving crop varieties.
The chemical engineering potential of Münster and Fraunhofer’s work resulted in them being highly commended at the Institution of Chemical Engineer’s (IChemE) Annual Awards for Innovation and Excellence, earlier this month.
IChemE’s chief executive, David Brown, said: “The UN estimates that about 80 per cent of required increased food supply will need to come from improvements in productivity, such as higher crop yields. Pressures on land use are also predicted to increase with a net expansion of arable land of about 70 million hectares1.
“The teams at Munster and Fraunhofer are helping to meet this challenge with their innovative work, which creates a new way to produce economically stable food supplies as population growth puts increasing pressure on valuable resources.
“The development is also significant in other ways. The cultivation of high-biomass crops could be a valuable source of sustainable energy and help reduce tensions over land use between biofuel and food production”.
The role of chemical engineers in the food and energy sectors is explored in IChemE’s latest technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters. The strategy also includes actions chemical engineers are taking on other global challenges including water and health.