Technology, Teamwork and Stewardship

Technology, Teamwork and Stewardship Vital in Meeting 2050 Global Food Need

By Jaclyn Tan
(Based on an interview by Nicole Konen)

With the world population projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, food production must double by then to meet food needs.

That's a big challenge, and one that needs to be considered right now, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture P. Stephen Baenziger, who holds the Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair for his worldrenowned expertise in wheat breeding.

As the primary small grains breeder in Nebraska, Baenziger has bred wheat, barley and triticale to be best suited to growing in Nebraska and to have the highest yield possible. "If you look at the projected rates of gain that they're asking (of) agronomists- people who manage our crops- and breeders- ones who're breeding them," he said, "we are looking at something which is absolutely unprecedented.

"If I were a policy maker, I would say invest in agriculture now," Baenziger said, "because you're going to need it, not today necessarily, but in 10 years from now. Absolutely."

The challenge is made even more difficult because of limited resources such as land, water and fertilizer, Baenziger said. However, he thinks it is possible to meet the 2050 global food need through advancements in genetic technology, efficient management of limited resources and partnerships around the world.

Growth in genetic technology

Stephen BaenzigerBaenziger breeds wheat the conventional way: He selects plants based on good physical characteristics, such as high yield or resistance to disease, and crosses them by hand to produce nextgeneration varieties that will have those favorable characteristics. These crosses are called cultivars.

Advancements in genetics will allow for even more efficient ways of selecting the best characteristics for plant breeding, Baenziger said. "We're living in what is called the genomics revolution, and what that will allow us to do is going to be huge," he said.

For example, scientists have started mapping the genetic sequence of wheat. This knowledge could lead to better understanding of what genes control plant yield and help scientists learn how to breed hybrids with higher yield but that require less inputs, such as water and fertilizer.

Genetic modification, such as the use of transgenes- genes taken out from one organism and inserted into the gene sequence of another organism- also can lead to wheat varieties that have improved qualities, Baenziger said.

Management of limited resources

Although genetic technology can help increase crop yield, Baenziger said the management of land, water and fertilizer are just as crucial because they are limited. "If you think about it, we're not creating new land," he said.

In fact, poor management leads to land that can no longer be farmed. "For every irrigated acre we add due to new water projects, globally we lose about an acre due to salinity," he said.

As a model of good resource management, Baenziger pointed to the Green Revolution that occurred in the 1940s to the 1970s. Researchers such as U.S. agronomist Norman Borlaug, credited as being the father of the movement, came up with disease-resistant, high-yield crop varieties. The era was also marked by the spread of more efficient management methods in fertilization, irrigation and pesticide application outside industrialized nations. Most of the gains will be in wellmanaged fields, Baenziger said.

Global and local partnerships

All the advancements in genetic technology and crop management strategies won't help increase crop production if they don't reach breeders and producers around the world. Baenziger said UNL's breeding program freely shares its wheat germplasm, or genetic material, with other breeding programs worldwide because it's a privilege to share knowledge and resources with those who need them most. "Anyone who works on wheat is a friend of ours. That doesn't matter if they are industry, public sector, nonprofit governmental organization," he said.

It also makes sense to share the germplasm, Baenziger said, because wheat was not native to North America. The first wheat that came to the Great Plains came from Turkey, and almost every variety of wheat in the U.S. was bred with germplasm from other countries. "We share our germplasm because people have shared their germplasm with us, and it allows us to create strains that are uniquely adapted to Nebraska," he said. "If (others) can use material to create strains that are uniquely adapted to Kazakhstan or South Africa or South America, all power to them."

In addition to sharing germplasm, Baenziger said he enjoys sharing his knowledge with students who come from all over the world, including the U.S., Thailand, Japan, India, Jordan, Turkey, Costa Rica, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Ethiopia. "They're the ones that'll be the next generation that, you know, in disparate lands will be making a difference for their countries," he said.

Playing a small role in the big picture

In his 26 years at UNL and as Nebraska's small grains breeder, Baenziger has accomplished much. Besides being the first recipient of the Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair, he is involved in a wheat yield consortium with the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

He is the only American on the 15-member board of trustees for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines. He frequently travels internationally and within the U.S. to give lectures.

Despite these accomplishments, Baenziger realizes that he is only a part of a large web of scientists and producers in the race to meet the 2050 food need. He hopes his contributions can help others achieve his lifelong goal of ending world hunger, because in his view, the whole world- including the U.S.- would be better off if there were fewer hungry people. "When you look at countries that are poor, and you look at countries that are trying to become better, we will be more profitable, we will be more safe and we will become a better country if globally, they're wealthier and they're fed better."


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