Science just came through in a big way for small farmers in developing countries.
Researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have found a way to boost crop yields from maize, according to a release from the lab. By altering a gene mutation that controls stem cell growth, they were able to increase the number of kernels produced by individual ears of maize by almost half.
This discovery could make a huge difference to help tackle the global challenge of feeding a growing world population. What's more, it could help small-scale farmers in the developing world to produce more food on small amounts of land.
“There’s great concern that we won’t be able to feed everybody in the coming years,” lead researcher David Jackson told Bioscience Technology. “I think that by producing higher yields, we can not only guarantee to feed the growing population, but also to hopefully [...] improve sustainability, and be required to use less land for agriculture.”
An estimated 2.5 billion people are involved full- or part-time in smallholder farming, according to the UN. These smallholder farmers provide almost 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
This new research provides a promising solution for these smallholder farmers, and the families and communities who depend on them: a new way to increase yields from staple crops, such as maize, without increasing the amount of land needed to grow them.
The science behind it works like this: Researchers discovered the precise gene mutation -- the fea3 mutation -- that causes plants to grow excess stem cells, and thus extra seeds, according to Gizmodo. By manipulating that mutation to grow just the right amount of stem cells -- more than the average maize plant, but not so much as to stunt the growth of the plant -- they were able to create a crop with 50 percent more kernels than the average maize crop.
This could have a huge impact on poverty and hunger in the developing world. One study showed that for every ten percent increase in farm yields, there was a seven percent reduction in poverty in Africa, and a reduction of over five percent in Asia, according to the UN.
But it could also have a huge impact on the world at large: The current world population is 7.3 billion, according to the UN, and by 2050 it’s expected to reach 9.7 billion. This rapid population growth will put increased pressure on our food systems, as well as the land and environment needed to produce food. These high-yield crops would relieve some of that pressure by making farming more sustainable, by requiring it to use less land to produce more food.
“If the yield increases we have seen in our lab strains hold out when used in agricultural maize strains, this would lead to a significant boost in yields, potentially improving agricultural sustainability by requiring less land be devoted to agriculture,” Jackson told Gizmodo.
The next step for the scientists is to see if the results can apply to other strains of maize and other crops -- and most importantly, if the results they found in their lab can be replicated in the field, under unregulated growing conditions.