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BTI Scientists Envision the “Future of Food”

Five BTI researchers engaged in a panel discussion entitled “The Future of Food” to close the fall board meeting on November 12. The panel discussed how climate change will affect the future of agriculture in the U.S. and abroad, and fielded questions from the audience about how research at the institute can help counter the threats that climate change poses to nutrition and food security.

David Wolfe, a Cornell professor of horticulture and fellow with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, moderated the event.

Wolfe stated that by 2050, humans will need to grow 60 percent more food, on almost the same amount of land, to meet demand. As climate change progresses, farmers will be forced to contend with droughts and higher temperatures, as well as more erratic weather events, including storms, frosts and flooding. While the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s relied on better breeding and agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, going forward, genomic technologies will likely be the most efficient way to improve crops.

“Technology is not the huge barrier it used to be,” said Associate Professor Lukas Mueller. “Sequencing a genome used to be a huge thing 10 years ago and is a relatively straightforward thing now.” His group creates genomic databases to provide plant breeders with tools to breed new crop varieties more effectively. By accelerating breeding, farmers can adapt more quickly to rapidly changing environments. His group works with several tropical crops, including cassava. Cassava is a crop with excellent drought tolerance that provides food security for poor farmers, and its importance will likely increase with the global temperature.

Warmer weather and changing temperature ranges also mean that populations of insects, plant pathogens and weeds will shift accordingly. Professor Georg Jander’s group studies natural plant defenses with the ultimate goal of breeding more pest-resistant crops so that farmers can apply fewer pesticides.

“The reason that we’re interested in insects is that they eat the plants that we would like to be eating,” said Jander, pointing out that insects reduce crop yield by about 20 percent worldwide.

Where and when bacterial outbreaks hit may also shift with climate change. Postdoctoral researcher Sarah Hindrepresented the Martin lab and talked about their work on the tomato immune system. To find novel genes that give plants resistance to infections, they are investigating wild relatives of tomato, which still grow in South America.

“Over the last several years we’ve starting really looking at those wild species of tomato and asking how are they doing a better job at being resistant to these natural pathogens,” said Hind. Ultimately, they aim to identify resistance genes that can be bred into crops so that they need fewer pesticide applications.

In response to an audience question, the panel also touched on the importance of creating crops that will appeal to consumers. Associate Professor Zhangjun Fei pointed to his work on orange sweet potato, which is more nutritious than traditional, starchier, white varieties, but in some countries, consumers have been slow to adopt the orange crops. Fei’s lab group creates computational tools to process the mountains of genomic data generated from sequencing crops—and from other “omics” data sets—in apple, tomato, sweet potato and cucurbit crops like squash and cucumbers.

Assistant Professor and USDA researcher Michelle Cilia said that scientists in her lab have been working successfully with citrus growers and other stakeholders to identify acceptable solutions to fighting citrus greening disease, a bacterial infection that is crippling the Florida citrus industry.

“We’re very interested in understanding how plants and insects interact, but specifically, how insects transmit pathogens that make the plant very sick,” Cilia said. “My lab studies some of the most serious insect vectors of plant disease worldwide.”

The dinner plates of 2050 may look rather different from those of today. While some foods may be scarce, others will likely be more nutritious, and may require less water, fertilizer and pesticides to grow. Whatever the future holds, BTI researchers hope to have a hand in meeting global food demand in a crowded, warmer world.

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