I spoke to Steve Long, RIPE Project Director, about adapting plants to the challenge of climate change and the challenge of 8 billion mouths to feed across the world every day.
The Case for Vegetables
We still have a climate crisis and while I know there are many people who want to ignore and disbelieve that, there are many others who are determined to make the very best of things whatever the future holds. One of the major concerns of climate scientists and climate activists is the issue of food. Many are vegetarian or vegan simply because a vegetable diet makes more sense to them when you consider available resources.
Towards the end of last year global population passed 8 billion. 8,000 million people across the world. Every one of those has to be fed and it is undeniable that vegetables deliver protein with far less inputs and land use than that required for producing the same amount of protein from livestock. Whether you're a vegetarian or a meat eater it's in everybody's interests that plants survive and thrive in the face of climate change, either to feed livestock or to feed people. That's why I was interested to learn of the work of the RIPE project. It's a project which has been ongoing for decades at sites in different parts of the world. Its aim is to adapt plants to the harsher future that climate change is creating.
Anthony Day: [00:00:00] Steve Long holds the Ikenberry Endowed Chair of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois. He's also a distinguished professor of Crop Sciences at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. He was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2013, and his work is published in more than 300 peer-reviewed journals, including Nature and Science. He's given briefings on food security and bioenergy to the US president, the Vatican, and to Bill Gates. He earned his bachelor's in Agriculture from Reading University and his doctorate in Plant Sciences from Leeds University. He describes himself as a crop physiologist. Steve is Director of the RIPE Project at the University of Illinois, heading a multidisciplinary team with members across the United States as well as in Australia and in the United Kingdom. Steve, welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Steve Long: [00:01:02] Thank you.
70% more food by 2050
Anthony Day: [00:01:04] RIPE, R-I-P-E. Realizing increased photosynthetic efficiency, the FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has said that by 2050 we're going to need 70% more food than we're producing now. And that's going to have to be achieved in the face of changing growing conditions brought about by climate change. How is the RIPE project going to help close that gap?
Steve Long: [00:01:32] The RIPE project is looking at the process of photosynthesis. Directly or indirectly, all of our food comes through this process. If we look at the process thermodynamically, we can see that the potential is much higher than what we realise in our crops. Now, so what we're working on in the project is how can we alter the process, if you like, remove the bottlenecks to try and get closer to the theoretical efficiency. Now, why is this important for sustainability? If we are going to need to be producing more food as forecast by UNFAO, then there are two ways we can do that. One is to take yet more land into agriculture, which is going to mean more destruction of natural habitat, encroaching further into the Amazon, other forest regions, etc.. Or, we can try to produce more per unit hectare that's already in use and that is how we see the RIPE project benefiting this.
Anthony Day: [00:03:01] I see. And you've been working on this for some years now. So how how much progress? Where are you now?
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK FCDO
Steve Long: [00:03:08] Well, we've obviously made a great deal more progress since we've had support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and also from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as well. So what this has allowed us to do is to now test a number of ideas that were predicted from theory. And we've shown three different ones which result in significant improvements in productivity in field settings, in agricultural settings. And the most recent one we've shown a quite substantial increase in soybean yield, in fact, on our farm here in Illinois, this resulted in a modern soybean cultivar, you know, in an over 20% increase in productivity. And what was particularly pleasing about that was that the quality of the seed, in particular the amount of protein and oil it contained, was not altered by that large increase.
Anthony Day: [00:04:20] So you're saying that you're maintaining the nutritional value, even though you're increasing the yield?
Steve Long: [00:04:26] Yes. And what I think is particularly important with, in the case of soybean and we hope with other legumes, is that a soybean here in Illinois is not normally fertilised. So it fixes its own nitrogen through association with bio-rhizobium nitrogen-fixing bacteria and its nodules. So the only way we think we could have got this result without losing any protein content, you're having 20% more, was that some of the extra product of photosynthesis was being fed to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria to obtain that nitrogen.
Anthony Day: [00:05:09] So there's a symbiosis between the plant and the surrounding bacteria?
Steve Long: [00:05:14] Yes.
Anthony Day: [00:05:16] And are you working with other crops?
Cowpea, Cassava, Rice
Steve Long: [00:05:18] Yes, we are. We're particularly interested in Cowpea, which is the most important vegetable protein source in sub-Saharan Africa, and sometimes described as the poor man's meat for smallholder farmers. And that, of course, is in collaboration with the Gates Foundation. We, we're also looking at cassava and rice too.
Anthony Day: [00:05:51] So this, your products then will be available to the small farmer and not just to the agricultural industry.
Steve Long: [00:06:00] Yes, that is the core reason for FCDO and the Gates Foundation supporting this work. So soybean is kind of a starting point. It is, it's an emerging crop in Africa because it does have such high yields, but relative to other legumes, but putting into these crops, which are important to the smallholder farmer is really most important because if you look today, about one in ten people on the planet are hungry for substantial periods. You could say that is arguably the worst global health problem we have. And when we look at where those hungry people are, the bulk of them are in South Asia, poor countries of South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. And in many cases, these are actually farmers, ironically, the smallholder farmers. And so we're looking in particular at crops that could really help them and ensure their own, if you like, family food security.
Anthony Day: [00:07:23] And will the costs be such that these plants will be accessible to these small farmers?
Steve Long: [00:07:30] Yes. A condition, condition of the funding is that any technology developed, whether patented or not, is available free of charge for in these countries.
Who owns the IP?
Anthony Day: [00:07:46] Right. Well, I was going to ask you about that. Who owns the IP? The intellectual property.
Steve Long: [00:07:52] The intellectual property is owned by the inventors. So in the case of the example I gave you on soybean, that is jointly owned by the University of Illinois and U.C. Berkeley as well.
Anthony Day: [00:08:07] Okay. So it's secure from that point of view. It's not, it is not commercially owned, which has been true of some plant developments, I think.
Steve Long: [00:08:19] Yes. Yeah.
Anthony Day: [00:08:21] So it's available to small farmers in developing nations. And can they save seed or does it not breed true from saved seed?
Steve Long: [00:08:31] No it would, it would breed true from saved seed in, in the crops we're talking about, in cowpea, in cassava, which is vegetatively propagated, so they would be able to save seed.
Anthony Day: [00:08:47] That, that's a very big advantage from their point of view, isn't it?
Corn is a hybrid
Steve Long: [00:08:50] Of course, if it was in corn, the by far the best yields in corn come from hybrids. So they do have to be made by you know a plant-, by a breeding company or or breeding organisation. It might be, some countries that might be government held.
Anthony Day: [00:09:09] Right. Are you working on corn or do you have any plans to work on corn?
Steve Long: [00:09:14] We, we think the technology we've used in soybean will work in corn. We haven't proved that yet. But we, we don't see any reason why not, because the processes were improving are the same across a wide range of crops.
Anthony Day: [00:09:36] I'm sure you're aware of George Monbiot, the journalist. I don't know whether you've come across his latest book, Regenesis.
Steve Long: [00:09:45] No, I haven't, sorry.
Increased Yields Offset by Climate Challenge?
Anthony Day: [00:09:46] Well, in that he quotes David Lobell from Stanford University, and if I interpreted Lobell's paper correctly, he is saying that it is possible to re-engineer plants so that we do indeed see major increases in yield today, but that as climate, as the climate crisis advances, then we will just see yields falling back to where they are now. And given we've got a 70% gap, what's the answer?
Steve Long: [00:10:21] Well, that is, that is a huge challenge. And I think that is something sort of that's on our minds all the time. We are, we are in this work we are actively looking at you know how can we at the same time save more water. And we have, in fact, also developed a technology which we think will do that. We've also been looking at ways in which we might be able to allow the crop to maintain its production at higher temperatures as well. But you know, that, that is a real issue, of course. The other one is we have to hope against hope that we do reduce our emissions in an urgent way so that climate change does not carry on on its current trajectory. Um, we've I mean, indeed we have actually shown one of our innovations in in soybean. It works better at high temperature, but in fact, you know David is right because it, in this particular case, all we've managed to do is maintain yield by our innovation rather than lose it, which is what we would do. We haven't made the change.
Anthony Day: [00:11:46] Yeah.
Steve Long: [00:11:46] This, this needs many more people working on that than just ourselves.
Anthony Day: [00:11:54] Yeah. There are some who seriously criticise industrialised agriculture on the basis it's plough it up, lace it with fertiliser, plant monocultures, spray pesticides, harvest, and repeat. In fact, some people say we've only got 60 harvests left. And I heard somebody the other day say, no, we've only got seven left. I don't know. I think that's, I hope that's alarmist. But do you think industrial agriculture is the future, or will continue to be the future, or should we be concentrating more on the small farmer?
Beyond the Green Revolution
Steve Long: [00:12:28] Well, that is, you know, very much what we're thinking of. And that is our target in this project. Because you and we, we have seen this before as well, that the world was facing serious starvation problems in the fifties and sixties, which were largely solved by the Green Revolution. Unfortunately, the approaches of the Green Revolution in which was again improving the yield potential, genetic yield potential of crops, unfortunately, those approaches are reaching their biological limits. So we need new ones, which is what we're doing now. But clearly, the aim of Gates Agricultural Innovations is to be able to give smallholder farmers seed, which will produce more and allow them to feed their families. Now, at the same time, in if like countries with larger monoculture agriculture, United States, Brazil, Argentina, again being able to produce more per unit land area is going to lower global prices, which is very important as we've seen right now, you right now, of course, we're getting large increase in the price of wheat because not all of the Ukrainian-Russian wheat is available as it would normally be. But we should keep in mind that it doesn't have to be a conflict that produces this situation. A major drought in the U.S., in Ukraine, or Russia, would produce exactly the same effect. And we are seeing those one-off events, extreme events, occurring more and more commonly with climate change.
Anthony Day: [00:14:31] All in all then, are you optimistic for the future?
Steve Long: [00:14:38] I'm, I'm optimistic in terms of the fact that we can produce the technologies. I'm far less optimistic about whether those technologies be taken up in time, whether there's going to be enough effort made. I mean, the spite of all the efforts made by the Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, that can only be a part of it. It needs a much bigger you know input by nations to really an attention to this problem. UNFAO have been pointing out that since 2014, every year more people are facing starvation. And if we, with with the rising demand, for example, if 70% is right, then this is just going to get worse and worse year by year. And of course, if, if large areas are suffering food shortages, as we saw in the Arab Spring, it can lead to civil disruption, civil wars, displacement of governments, which just exacerbates the situation. So I know politicians have got many other things on their minds, but they need to also be looking at this major problem. So, so I do I do think that plant scientists can produce the technologies to address this, but it's going to take a massive investment to take it beyond that.
Anthony Day: [00:16:23] Steve Long, thank you very much for sharing your ideas and thoughts with the Sustainable Futures Report.
Steve Long: [00:16:30] Thank you for your interest.
We have the Technology
So we clearly have the technology. Do we have the political will? That seems to be a perennial question in all aspects of sustainability. One we will no doubt return to.
As you heard, the project is supported by the Gates Foundation as well as the U.K.'s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. There are links to both on the SFR website which you will no doubt remember is http://www.sustainablefutures.report .
I think I mentioned a while ago that George Monbiot has published a book called ReGenesis and I've been promising you a review of it.
I've written most of it and then realised I'd lost my notes so that I was going to have to go back and re-read the book. Then I found my notes so I haven't got quite so much work to do, but I haven't yet done it. The point is that George Monbiot is going one great step further forward. He sees the future of food in enormous fermentation vats. He believes that we will produce food by fermentation on an industrial scale and that we can forget about ploughing the land and planting seeds and so on. I will finish that review, so look out for it in February, and if you don't hear any more please feel free to give me a nudge.
New Year’s Resolutions
Well that's it for this week. I'm off to polish up my New Year's Resolutions. Have you made all yours yet? Have you broken any of them yet? Hey let's be positive!
Yes, that's my New Year's resolution - let's be positive! Let's be constructive, practical, pragmatic and above all helpful to others. Let's make 2023 a year with positive memories, regardless of whatever may happen.
Next week I'm looking at new technologies, or at least an adaptation of quite well-established technologies. Do you know how long it takes you to charge up your phone? And how long it takes you to charge up your electric car, unless you can find one of those ultra rapid chargers? Even if you can, you'll find using an ultra rapid charger is the most expensive way to charge your car. It's early days yet, but I do wonder how well batteries will stand up to high-capacity rapid charging. Wouldn't it be better just to swap the battery for a fully charged one, rather than waiting for it to charge? Next week’s guest has an answer. Not for cars, perhaps, because they're just not designed to have their batteries removed but there are certainly other possibilities. Watch this space. Or to put it another way don't miss the next episode of the Sustainable Futures Report on Wednesday, 11th January.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the first episode of the Sustainable Futures Report for 2023. The first of many episodes this year.
Thank you for listening.
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I'm back next week.
The RIPE project
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation