Resurrection Plants May be the Answer to Global Food Shortage

From developing countries reeling from the devastating effects of drought to industrialized nations only beginning to feel the strain, the consequences of climate change are real, and they are happening now. An innovation that allows crops to survive under intense drought conditions may be a solution to climate change-induced food shortage. These “resurrection plants” likely represent the future for global food production.

Photo by Gerhard Gellinger
Photo by Gerhard Gellinger

It’s hard to recall in recent memory any year that didn’t set a record high temperature somewhere. Climate change continues to devastate the globe with everything from drought and dangerous weather events to rising sea levels and ecosystem degradation. However, perhaps the most imminent threats posed by climate change are those that affect humans directly, especially those of us in already-vulnerable parts of the world. Water scarcity in developing nations is nothing new and continues to worsen.

However, due to crippling drought, another dagger is being thrust into ground: increased food shortage. In areas of the world such as Africa and the Middle East, where food is already in short supply, how can people possibly cope with the prospect of even less? And in other regions, from the Midwest United States to Western Australia, the threat of widespread drought-induced crop failure may loom near.

Jill Farrant is a leader in drought-tolerant crop development. Through genetic engineering, her work aims to nourish populations in high-risk regions for food shortage and ultimately to solve the threat of climate change-induced crop failure. The plants she studies are anything but ordinary. One could even  consider them to be “zombie” plants, or they’re more popularly known, resurrection plants: highly drought resistant crops that can go months to even years without rainfall. Farrant sees resurrection plants as the backbone of the next solution to mitigate the drought-induced crop failure as early as 2030.

Farrant’s TED talk, “How We Can Make Crops Survive Without Water”, gives us a glimpse of what a resurrection plants-based solution may look like. Here are some of the numbers that drive this vital discussion.

#1: Population vs. Climate

“The current world population is around 7 billion. It’s estimated that by 2050, we’ll be between 9 and 10 billion people, with the bulk of this growth happening in Africa.”

Estimates show that 6.5% of all people ever born are alive right now, a jump from 1.5 to 6.1 billion in roughly 100 years.

Though population growth rates are decreasing worldwide – they peaked in 1962 –  the decrease is not enough to prevent us from exceeding the projected 10 billion. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. So where will this extra crop production come from? That’s the billion-dollar question. Projections show that many of the world’s most fertile areas may soon face dire circumstances if they aren’t already.

Even when wheat was nearing record supply in 2012-13, it could not satiate the market. It’s estimated that global food production would have to increase by 70% to feed the 9.6 billion mouths of the world by 2050. This doesn’t account for the 2% decline in food production that we’re expected to see every decade for the rest of the century.

Many of the regions suffering the brunt of climate change are also the areas producing the world’s most vital food supplies. This includes the Midwest United States, East Asia, South America, and certain locations in Northern Africa.

#2: Of Wheat, Maize, and Soy

The food and agricultural organizations of the world have suggested that we need a 70 percent increase in current agricultural practice to meet that demand. Given that plants are at the base of the food chain, most of that’s going to have to come from plants.

By far, the most prolific crops in world are wheat, maize (corn), and soy. Soy is a source of protein and makes vegetable oil. It is also part of the U.S. economic engine. Half of the soy products in the world comes from the U.S. Wheat is also a staple in diets worldwide and is essential for feeding livestock. Maize is used for industrial products as well as food for people and animals.

Here is the outlook for these cash crops just in the United States:

Wheat: Yields would fall 4.4% in the Great Plains for every 1.5°F increase in temperature. Wheat comprises 20% of all calories consumed worldwide and is relied upon for animal feed.

Soy: Yields would fall 2.4% for every 1.8°F increase. Though the Midwest may actually experience increases, the Southeast is expected to see significant decline.

Maize: Depending on moisture and carbon dioxide, corn yields could suffer decreases between 2.5% and 8%.

The three major crops are all a kind of plant known as “annuals”. This means they complete their life cycle from germination to harvest within the span of one year. In terms of drought, these types of plants often do not fare well. However, wheat, maize, and soy may have a chance of being spared declination in locations that produce higher levels of CO2. If CO2 levels do not reach the necessary threshold, the outcome is detrimental.

Local CO2 levels are very difficult to project, and even if it were more reliable, proliferating the emission of greenhouse gases will only make the bigger picture even worse through climate change. Though it is true that some plants may respond positively to warmer, CO2-rich conditions, others will not. An atmospheric coin flip cannot determine the future of world food security. Crops have already seen losses and many fields have been abandoned altogether in regions of Africa.

#3 GMOs: Friend or Foe?

“All of the crops that we eat today – wheat, rice and maize – are highly genetically modified from their ancestors, but we don’t consider them GM because they’re being produced by conventional breeding. If you mean, am I going to put resurrection plant genes into crops, your answer is yes.”

Image by Andy Thies, Braden Anderson, and Jesse Howe
Image by Andy Thies, Braden Anderson, and Jesse Howe

Researchers have devised a solution to use genetic modification to allow crops to have the same genes as resurrection plants (or desiccation plants), but don’t activate. Unsurprisingly, this raises protests from public groups concerned about consuming genetically-modified food. Are “GMOs” bad for us? It depends on the circumstance; many foods we eat would not be around if it wasn’t for genetic engineering. Florida oranges have been modified to fight many diseases that have spread through our food supply back in 2005. Any food you eat – organic or not – is likely the byproduct of historical genetic modification whether through modern technology or simple plant breeding. In fact, the modern movement against genetically modified food has much less to do with science and much more to do with distrust in agricultural companies.

What about resurrection plants? The idea of putting the genes for desiccation-tolerance into our crops may be a fundamental step in solving worldwide food shortage. To fear it simply because it involves genetic manipulation would not be a practice in sound rationalism. Interestingly, the gene that allows for desiccation tolerance actually lives in these crops already. In order to become resurrection plants, those genes just need to be activated.

There is no single answer to solving worldwide food shortages. Admittedly, desiccation-tolerant crops seek more to mitigate the harmful effects of drought than to provide food to areas that have historically struggled with food shortage. Though resurrection plants are surely one of the great innovations in the modern adaptation to climate change, it will require a comprehensive network of political and social players to execute its use in a method that is effective and equitable.

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