One crop breeding cycle from starvation? How engineering crop photosynthesis for rising CO2 and temperature could be one important route to alleviation
Global climate change is likely to severely impact human food production. This comes at a time when predicted demand for primary foodstuffs by a growing human population and changing global diets is already outpacing a stagnating annual rate of increase in crop productivity. Additionally, the time required by crop breeding and bioengineering to release improved varieties to farmers is substantial, meaning that any crop improvements needed to mitigate food shortages in the 2040s would need to start now. In this perspective, the rationale for improvements in photosynthetic efficiency as a breeding objective for higher yields is outlined. Subsequently, using simple simulation models it is shown how predicted changes in temperature and atmospheric [CO2] affect leaf photosynthetic rates. The chloroplast accounts for the majority of leaf nitrogen in crops. Within the chloroplast about 25% of nitrogen is invested in the carboxylase, Rubisco, which catalyses the first step of CO2 assimilation. Most of the remaining nitrogen is invested in the apparatus to drive carbohydrate synthesis and regenerate ribulose-1:5-bisphosphate (RuBP), the CO2-acceptor molecule at Rubisco. At preindustrial [CO2], investment in these two aspects may have been balanced resulting in co-limitation. At today's [CO2], there appears to be over-investment in Rubisco, and despite the counter-active effects of rising temperature and [CO2], this imbalance is predicted to worsen with global climate change. By breeding or engineering restored optimality under future conditions increased productivity could be achieved in both tropical and temperate environments without additional nitrogen fertilizer. Given the magnitude of the potential shortfall, better storage conditions, improved crop management and better crop varieties will all be needed. With the short time-scale at which food demand is expected to outpace supplies, all available technologies to improve crop varieties, from classical crop breeding to crop genetic engineering should be employed. This will require vastly increased public and private investment to support translation of first discovery in laboratories to replicated field trials, and an urgent re-evaluation of regulation of crop genetic engineering.