Future of Food: how J-WAFS is making a global impact
Since it was established in 2014, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 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 future of food: beating the heat with genome edited crops
By Robert Sakai-Irvine, The Mainichi Staff Writer
The Mainichi, the English-language news site of the Mainichi Shimbun national Japanese daily, recently featured the work of J-WAFS in an article about the future of food including a look at an exciting J-WAFS-funded project relating to crop resilience and gene editing. The article originally published on November 28, 2018, is reproduced below by kind permission.
Wheat with DNA tweaked to beat the heat, and redesigned rice that can flourish in hot, dry conditions. Work is now underway to bring these kinds of genetically edited foods to dinner tables around the world, with the new rice estimated to be in bowls by about 2039, all necessitated by our warmer — and in some places much drier and much more populous — planet.
“Climate change poses an enormous threat to food security for large parts of the world,” said Professor John H. Lienhard V, director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) of the United States in emailed comments to The Mainichi. He added that “changes to food production practices and even staple foods in our diet will be necessary.”
Crop yields fall about 5 percent for every degree of temperature rise, according to the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Meanwhile, an IPCC report released on October 8th, stated the Earth could be an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter compared to the preindustrial era as soon as 2030. And that warmer world may see significant decreases in rainfall: 5 to 10 percent in large parts of Mexico, southern Africa, the Middle East and southern China, and up to 20 percent in areas of southern Europe and North Africa. At the same time, the world’s population will continue to grow, to 9.73 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100, according to a U.N. estimate.
In Japan, the Cabinet’s 2015 climate change adaptation plan noted that rice yields were already falling. Furthermore, under the IPCC’s worst-case 3-degree warming scenario, “if a shift to high-temperature-resistant varieties does not proceed, the ratio of first-class rice will decrease nationwide,” except in the north of the country.
MIT’s Lienhard noted that everyone can help counter these threats through not wasting food, using green energy and thinking “about how your personal food choices can be most sustainable.” Meanwhile, “science and technology will aim for major results.”
Enter the aforementioned not-so-thirsty crops.
“I think the genes and pathways that we’re identifying through our approach — spanning cell biology to whole plant physiology — could be good candidates for GM (genetic modification) intervention” to keep yields up, MIT assistant professor David Des Marais told The Mainichi in an email interview.
Des Marais and his team are working on a J-WAFS-backed project to find the genetic foundations for responses to heat and water stress in a grass species related to wheat and rice. They are looking for gene networks activated by these conditions, and how plants then allot resources like nutrients to survive. He added that genetic editing based on the team’s research could be “a good opportunity to improve crop resilience and food security in at-risk locations around the world.”
Another endeavor Des Marais called “very exciting” is the C4 Rice Project. A 10-institution effort headquartered at Britain’s Oxford University, the project’s goal is to genetically alter rice — a “C3” plant, so-called because of the three-carbon molecules it makes during photosynthesis — into “C4” plants. The chemical processes in this type of plant is much more efficient at converting solar energy into forms the plant can use (and some we can eat) through photosynthesis — using sunlight to make glucose from carbon dioxide and water — than its C3 cousins. In short, C4 plants produce more grain from the same amount of sunlight.
What’s more, “C4 plants do particularly well in hot and dry places — generally yielding up to 50 percent more than C3 plants whilst using less nitrogen and less water,” essential for plant metabolism, project head and Oxford professor Jane Langdale told The Mainichi in an email exchange. For a warming world with a lot less rainfall in some areas, “the implications are enormous,” she added.
However, none of this is easy. The C4 project is nothing less than the genes-up redesign of one of the rice plant’s basic life processes, giving it new chemical properties and even new cell structures in its leaves. Furthermore, genes are ‘networked,’ meaning that genetic expression is based on interactions among the molecules themselves and other substances and factors, so finding which combinations of genes do what is no easy task.
There are also widespread worries over the future consequences of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). On July 25, the European Court of Justice ruled that any gene edited plants — even those not incorporating any outside DNA — fall under the European Union’s GMO Directive prescribing an extremely strict regime of checks and official approvals before a GMO can go to market.
On the other hand, an August 20th report by an expert panel at Japan’s Environment Ministry recommended regulating genetically modified organisms that include DNA inserted from other sources, but relaxing rules for GMOs that have had genes disabled or deleted, reasoning that such genetic changes also occurred in nature.
“A lot of plant biologists were really shocked by the recent EU developments,” commented MIT’s Des Marais, adding, “I hope other regions of the world approach next-gen GM crops with a more open and evidence-based mind.” Oxford’s Langdale, meanwhile, predicted that there would be “different ground rules” by the time C4 rice was ready to market, “not least if food shortages are as extreme as predicted.”
If the GMO concerns are overcome, both Des Marais and Langdale were confident genetically edited plants could provide for our hotter world’s growing population, though a long road lies ahead.
“The (C4 rice) project is on target but it is expected that there will need to be a 10-year engineering phase after the current phase ends next year, followed by possibly 10 years of breeding. This puts an end date of 2039,” said Langdale.
Still, Des Marais emphasized that we also must work on better preserving the food we already grow, managing water and soil better to boost yields, and helping small-scale farmers tap the funds they need to maximize the potential of their land. “To feed 10 billion people we’re going to need … better varieties, better cropping systems, better access to markets,” he said. “GM is part of that, but possibly not the most critical.”
© 2018 The Mainichi Newspapers Co. All rights reserved. Reproduced by kind permission.
J-Clinic: One year of progressOne year on from its inception, MIT/J-Clinic Chair Professor Anantha P. Chandrakasan talks to Opening Doors about progress on this groundbreaking MIT/Community Jameel collaboration. ...Read more
J-WAFS in action – combating food contaminationTim Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT, and coworkers, have developed a new way to bring a fast, easy, and affordable food safety sensing technology to industry and consumers. ...Read more
Artistic renaissance redefining our global presenceIt’s never been a better time to be an artist – or an arts enthusiast – in the Middle East. With a rich cultural history, one increasingly unafraid to splice with modern perspectives, the region is attracting the world’s gaze as never before. ...Read more
Developing a new planning model for large water projectsJ-WAFS’ research explores how city planners can best prepare for the uncertainties of climate change. ...Read more
Water flows through the 2018 World Economic Forum Global Risks ReportThis January 2500 delegates and 70 world leaders from 100 different countries braved the heaviest snowfall in decades to meet in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum (WEF). ...Read more
A war on waste and a spray that stays: J-WAFS cultivates innovation to address pressing food and agriculture problemsA coating that reduces food waste by increasing the shelf life of produce, and a spray that reduces pollution caused by pesticide run-off, are among two of the latest innovations to win recognition from the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) second annual Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize. Picking ...Read more
Securing food and water for allMankind’s most significant issues are being tackled by an elite group of researchers and entrepreneurs at the home of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The world’s population is predicted to grow by more than two billion by the mid-21st Century, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs . That ...Read more
Kids in the classroom: Improving education for children in developing economiesNew ways to potentially increase the number of children enrolled in and attending full-time education in low- and middle-income countries have been identified by a comprehensive new report published by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The report – Roll Call: Getting Children into School  – drew lessons from 58 randomized ...Read more
J-WAFS in action: providing safe drinking water through woodRohit Karnik, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, and Amy Smith, Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and founding director of D-Labs at MIT, are leading a group of researchers hoping to harness the natural qualities of xylem wood to provide safe, affordable drinking water to low-income groups. Opening Doors spoke to Rohit Karnik, Amy Smith, and team me ...Read more
J-WAFS in Action: Providing safe, clean milk to rural communitiesPranay Jain is a graduate student in mechanical engineering at MIT, working alongside Professor Sanjay Sarma in the Field Intelligence Laboratory. Pranay is part of a team, funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), that is developing a new low-cost handheld device to test milk quality and safety. Opening Doors spoke to Pranay about the project and its a ...Read more