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5 May 2017

Modified Food for a Changing Climate: GMO Soybeans Boost Yields in Warmer Conditions

Looking forward to the year 2050, the situation looks a little bleak. It is estimated that by that time, there will be approximately 2 billion more people walking the Earth than there is today, but with less land to spread upon as climate change brings a rise in sea levels. Temperatures by 2050 are expected to frequently match the upper 5% of temperature records spanning 1950-1979, and carbon monoxide levels are predicted to rise by 50% up to 600 parts per million. The flora of our planet did not evolve for such climates, leaving us with the worrying potential for a serious global food shortage as our planet’s climate and ecosystems begin to change in response to various pressures, many of them man-made.

In an effort to get ahead of the curve and develop reliable food sources for future, a team of researchers have recently concluded a three-year study focusing on modified soybeans and, more specifically, how they may fare in the predicted climate of 2050. Published in the Journal of Experimental Botany, the research conducted at the SoyFACE (Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment) facility shows that the tested variety of modified soybeans does in fact achieve a higher yield than the conventional counterpart when subjected to both increased temperature and carbon monoxide levels. However, when only one of the aforementioned variables was changed, or the crop was grown under today’s conditions, little difference was found between the modified and unmodified varieties.

“Our climate system and atmosphere are not changing in isolation from other factors - there are actually multiple facets,” said Carl Bernacchi, associate professor of plant biology at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois. “The effect of carbon dioxide in and of itself seems to be very generalized, but neglects the complexity of adding temperature into the mix. This research is one step in the right direction towards trying to figure out a way of mitigating those temperature-related yield losses that will likely occur even with rising carbon dioxide concentrations.”

The research is a promising step towards offsetting the detrimental effects of rising global temperatures by manipulating the genetics of certain crops to better suit future conditions. It also calls into question the idea that rising temperatures will reduce yields, while increasing carbon dioxide will boost them, as the two variables seem to impact upon each other.

“Experiments under controlled conditions are great to understand concepts and underlying mechanisms,” said first author of the study Iris Köhler, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Bernacchi lab. “But to understand what will happen in a real-world situation, it is crucial to study the responses in a natural setting -- and SoyFACE is perfect for this kind of study.”

While the newly-published research is certainly promising, it will need to be used alongside other methods in a process known as ‘stacking’ if we are to truly combat the expected decline in food supplies caused by climate change, a fact which Bernacchi does recognise:

“When we're trying to meet our food needs for the future, this specific modification is one of the many tools that we're going to need to rely upon,” Bernacchi said. “There is a lot of research across the planet that's looking at different strategies to make improvements, and many of these are not mutually exclusive.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.