From green to gold: agricultural revolution for food security

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In the late 1960’s, an agricultural transformation called the “Green Revolution” was responsible for a much-needed increase in agricultural production worldwide. It involved the introduction of two genes, and its impact was so huge that the lead researcher, Norman Borlaug, received the Nobel Peace Prize for saving millions of lives from starvation. Since then, human population has continued to rise dramatically, creating a new urgency for another revolution in agriculture.

This time, scientists are focusing on photosynthesis – the process by which plants produce organic matter from carbon dioxide, water and sunlight – because there is ample evidence that improving photosynthesis will improve yield. They have called this new revolution “Golden” and this time around, it involves much more than two genes.

“One of the new challenges of this Golden Revolution is that not only has global population doubled since 1970, but now we have climate change in the picture, which is generally predicted to be detrimental to agriculture. This time we need a more complex set of technological tools to increase productivity in a sustainable way without occupying more arable land while dealing with more extreme temperatures and drought,” says ARC Centre for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP) Chief Investigator Professor John Evans.

Some of the innovative solutions scientists have been working on to solve this problem, have been published recently as part of a Special Issue on Food Security in the Journal of Experimental Botany.

“The papers included in this special issue highlight the many facets of the Golden Revolution, with the common goal of improving the efficiency with which plants convert water, light and nutrients into biomass, “says Professor Evans, co-editor of the issue.

The papers include a diverse range of approaches and technological advances by international teams of plant scientists. On one side, are the traditional breeding approaches and new high-throughput technologies used in the field. Technologies such as hyperspectral reflectance and phenomics, are allowing scientists to measure photosynthesis in a faster, non-destructive and more precise way, and find useful but elusive genes to make plants more water efficient and drought resistant.

On another side, is the diverse and promising front of synthetic biology, with examples such as an engineering project where lipids are stored in leaves rather than seeds to increase the nutritional value of pasture.

This comprehensive look at photosynthesis research for crop improvement, includes research reviews on how to make plants more productive and water use efficient, to research articles on different aspects of stomata, the structures on leaf surfaces that regulate loss and how they respond to different colors of light and lastly, projects aimed at understanding carbon source (photosynthesis) and sink traits (e.g. grain growth) to improve crops.

Finally, the editors have also included an article on the important role of photosynthesis research on the socio economic aspects of agriculture.

“This area of research could not be more exciting for scientists and not be more relevant for humankind given the challenge we face to increase yield. To feed the future global population in a sustainable way in the face of unprecedented changes in global climate, will draw on diverse, creative skills and innovative approaches, and require combining these efforts at all levels in order to achieve a Golden Revolution in agriculture”, says Professor Evans.

The Special Issue on Innovations in Agriculture for Food Security was the result of an International Conference that took place in July 2019 in Brisbane Australia (InnovAg) organised by the CoETP.

Read the complete Special Issue here:

Journal of Experimental Botany, Volume 71, Issue 7, 6 April 2020

Read the Editorial by John Evans and Tracey Lawson. From Green to Gold: agricultural revolution for food security Pages 2211–2215.