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The time is RIPE to transform agriculture and feed the world

Published September 15, 2017
Steve Long and Don Ort
Researchers led by Stephen Long (left) and Don Ort (right) will continue transformative work to increase yields of food crops for farmers worldwide through Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency with the support of a five–year, $45-million reinvest

URBANA, Ill. – Political and agricultural leaders gather at the University of Illinois today to see transformative work by scientists in the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) research project, which has already demonstrated yield increases of 20 percent. A $45 million, five-year reinvestment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) will enable the researchers to continue their work to address the global food challenge.

“Today's report on world hunger and nutrition from five UN agencies reinforces our mission to work doggedly to provide new means to eradicate world hunger and malnutrition by 2030 and beyond,” said RIPE Director Stephen Long, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic at Illinois. “This investment is timely. Annual yield gains are stagnating and means to achieve substantial improvement must be developed now if we are to provide sufficient food for a growing and increasingly urban world population when food production must also adapt sustainably to a changing climate.”

“While no single strategy is going to get us there, our successes in redesigning photosynthesis are exciting,” said RIPE Deputy Director Don Ort, USDA/ARS Photosynthesis Research Unit and the Robert Emerson Professor in Plant Biology and Crop Sciences at Illinois. “RIPE has validated that photosynthesis can be engineered to be more efficient to help close the gap between the trajectory of yield increase and the trajectory of demand increase.”

Building on half a century of photosynthesis research at Illinois, including several landmark discoveries enabled by state and federal partnerships, RIPE researchers simulated the 170-step process of photosynthesis. They used their computer models to identify seven potential pipelines to improve photosynthesis—and with the support of an initial $25 million, five-year grant from the Gates Foundation—began work in 2012 to try to turn their ideas into sustainable yield increases.

Last year, in a study published in the journal Science, the team demonstrated that one of these approaches could increase crop productivity by as much as 20 percent – a dramatic increase over typical annual yield gains of one percent or less. Two other RIPE pipelines have now led to even greater yield improvements in greenhouse and preliminary field trials.

“Our modeling predicts that several of these improvements can be combined to achieve additive yield increases, providing real hope that a 50 percent yield increase in just three decades is possible,” Long said. “With the reinvestment, a central priority will be to move these improved photosynthesis traits into commodity crops of the developed world, like soybeans, as well as crops that matter in the developing world, including cassava and cowpeas.”

RIPE and its funders will ensure that their high-yielding food crops are globally available and affordable for smallholder farmers to help feed the world’s hungriest and reduce poverty, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

But we still have a long road ahead of us, Long said.

“It takes about fifteen years from discovery until crops with these transformative biotechnologies are available for farmers,” he said. “It will therefore be well into the 2030s before such superior crops are seen at scale in farmers’ fields.”

Long and Ort are also part of the Department of Crop Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at Illinois.