By Lynne FriedmannWith human population at 7 billion (and counting) food and energy security pose critical worldwide issues. Researchers see a way to tackle both problems through better harnessing of photosynthesis.
“Plants are very good at turning the sun’s energy into chemical energy, meaning food and bio-energy,” said Julian Schroeder, UCSD professor of biology, and co-director of Food and Fuel for the 21st Century (FF21), a new University of California organized research unit (ORU). “Plants will be part of the solution for a sustainable future, but the challenges are undoubtedly great and also pressing.”
The use of photosynthesis to solve food and fuel problems gains traction when you consider the Earth receives about 6,000 times more energy from the sun than all present human energy demands.
“The mission of this new ORU is to support development of innovative, sustainable, and commercially viable solutions for the renewable production of food, energy, green chemistry and bio-products using photosynthetic organisms,” said Stephen Mayfield, UCSD professor of biology, FF21 co-director, and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, which is working with industry and academic partners to develop economical algal biofuels.
To kick-off its launch, FF21 presented a symposium May 11-13 that brought some 300 researchers in biology, chemistry, engineering, and economics together with industry leaders, and state and national policy makers to address world energy and food production sustainability. Event sponsors included Life Technologies, NEC, Sapphire Energy, Heliae, Agilent Technologies, CleanTECH San Diego, and The EDGE Initiative.
Joanne Chory, director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute, presented findings on the biochemistry and genetics by which plants respond to the presence or absence of light. She also called for more support of fundamental research in plant development, environment tolerance, and adaptability.
“Agriculture has been neglected over the past several decades in terms of research funding,” Chory said. “We need more than a genome sequence. We need funding and a reward system for explaining the mechanisms underlying plant-life strategy.”
When it comes to future of agriculture, weather and climate change are wild cards. “What will the planet look like in which you grow your crops?” asked Tony Haymet, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Climate-change models predict less frost days and more heat waves.
California is an agricultural giant due, in no small measure, to the annual winter snow pack that fosters reliable irrigation through a steady melt later in the year. Even if precipitation in California remains at current levels, a rise in temperature would mean more precipitation falling as rain and not as snow.
Population dynamics are another factor driving food and fuel concerns. As families in developing countries have fewer children, they tend to switch to richer protein diets creating an increased demand for livestock.
“Nobody eats cereal for 95 percent of their calories because they like to,” said Toni Voelker of Monsanto. Agriculture-based “green crude production” is expected to play a big role in addressing the world’s energy needs.
“Algae is the best scalable production system in a land-water-and-carbon-constrained world,” said Gerardo V. Toledo, of Synthetic Genomics.
That said, growing single-celled algae in shallow ponds on marginal lands will require biology-and-engineering-driven advances to drive down its currently prohibitively expensive cost.
Starting in the mid-1990s research attention turned to Jatropha, a tree that produces apricot-size fruit with large seeds from which fuel oil can be extracted. Jatropha grows in hot, tropical regions, is drought tolerant, and can grow on marginal land (of which there are 2.5 billion acres in the world). Therefore, establishing jatropha orchards would not displace other agricultural crops.
All commercially viable crops are improved versions of wild relatives, and jatropha is still considered an undomesticated crop. So, research is currently focused on improving the strains.
“Innovative research is the best opportunity for game changing,” said Julian Schroeder. “But, research alone will not feed the world; people will.”
This calls for increased international cooperation. On May 18, delegates from the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations concluded a weekend summit at the U.S. presidential retreat at
Camp Davidby issuing a declaration of commitment to work with African partners on a food security and nutrition alliance aimed at accelerating the flow of capital and new technologies to vulnerable economies and communities.
—Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.