Addressing the global food challenge with nitrogen-fixing crops
According to a recent report from the United Nations (UN), the world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by the year 2050 – an increase of 2 billion people from present day. As our population grows, the absolute quantities of food necessary to feed the world by 2050 will be substantial, with researchers predicting that demand for food will rise from between 59% to 98%[i].
Population growth alone isn’t the sole propeller for augmented food demand. The rise of global prosperity is spurring an increased need for meat, eggs, and dairy, driving pressure to grow more crops to feed growing numbers of livestock. If these predictions come to fruition, we will need to almost double crop production volumes by 2050.
This will shape agricultural markets and food systems across the globe, with farmers looking for new ways to significantly boost crop yields, without accumulating excessive additional cost and whilst also protecting valuable ecosystems and reducing food’s environmental impact. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the agricultural industry currently contributes nearly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, so as food demand grows, it’s clear we can’t just produce more food in the same way as today.
Researchers worldwide are exploring innovative solutions to address the global food challenge and to ensure that there is enough food to meet global need in the coming decades. One such research group is at the Voigt lab in the Department of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor of Advanced Biotechnology at MIT. Over the last four years, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has funded Voigt with two J-WAFS Seed Grants. With this support, Voigt and his team have been able to make significant progress with their research into how cereal crops can be transformed so they are able to fix their own nitrogen.
According to the team:
“The strategy is to target the specific genes in the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that operate symbiotically with legumes, called the nif genes. These genes cause the expression of the protein structures (nitrogenase clusters) that fix nitrogen from the air. If these genes were able to be successfully transferred and expressed in cereal crops, chemical fertilizers would no longer be needed to add needed nitrogen, as these crops would be able to obtain nitrogen themselves.”
To date, the Voigt lab has achieved groundbreaking results, moving us closer to fertilizer independence through nitrogen-fixing cereals which could revolutionize cereal production globally.
Speaking about this transformative vision, Chris Voigt comments:
“The Voigt lab is invested in moving this research forward in order to get ever closer to the dream of creating nitrogen-fixing cereal crops.”
Read more about the innovative Voigt lab research project here.
J-WAFS was co-founded in 2014 by Community Jameel and MIT. Since it was established, the Lab has gathered attention around the world for its pioneering work to help tackle water and food challenges in the face of climate change, population growth, and increasing urbanization and development across the globe. The J-WAFS seed grant program is the most significant funding source for water and food research. This support provides the MIT research community with essential resources as they strive to tackle some of humankind’s most severe challenges.
[i] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)