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Harvesting Hope: Future-Proofing Plants for Bountiful 2050 Crop Yields

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Laura Galante

May 4, 2023

Considering prevalent trends, such as population growth, increasing demand for animal protein, land use change, and resource scarcity, a blueprint for future crops may help prioritise sustainable and efficient agriculture practices, as well as improved food systems. CropBooster-P, funded under the Horizon 2020 Programme, is a project that aimed to find a solution to this question by looking into innovative crop-breeding technologies for improving climate adaptability, resource use efficiency, yield, and quality.

You are standing in front of four doors that lead you into different realities for the year 2050. The first one guides you into a world in which high-quality food is sustainably harvested through innovative solutions, providing large volumes of feedstock for a thriving bioeconomy. The second door opens to a scenario in which people drive the preferences and concerns for health and agriculture, determining what farmers can grow, and businesses must exercise the utmost transparency in food production practices. The third door leads you to a bleak setting, in which European countries are struggling to meet basic food demand and technology reigns supreme in order to mitigate this state of emergency. And finally, through the fourth door you see a society that is extremely food-technology averse, polarised, and distrustfuly of its politicians. Food choice is scarce, and prices have become disproportionate. Which door is most likely to swing open to a concrete reality? The answer could be a combination of two or more of these.

It is widely recognized that food production systems are expected to face significant pressure in the coming decades due to trends such as climate change, population growth, and unsustainable land use practices. Therefore, what are the ways in which crop productivity can best be equipped to resist and overcome these factors, in other words be made “future-proof”?

Coordinated by René Klein Lankhorst, Senior Scientist and Programme Developer at the Plant Sciences Group of Wageningen University and Research, CropBooster-P was finalised at the end of 2022 and the resulting roadmap for how to improve crop yields in Europe was presented to the European Commission after seven years in the making. This roadmap lays out the design for a large pan-European consortium that aims to execute the research agenda over a period of 10 to 15 years. The new phase thereafter aims to ensure that this roadmap will be followed up and executed with support of the European Commission.

Cropbooster-P used a combination of scenario-building methods, stakeholder engagement, and scientific research into the current state-of-the-art in the field. These methods were used to develop a roadmap presenting the different scenarios above for future-proofing crop plants, as well as including a plan for developing and implementing the suggested research.

“In these scenarios, we are using all kinds of current trends and making an extrapolation of what direction the future will take,” Klein Lankhorst notes. “These four extreme scenarios remain in the boundaries of what will be possible. Of course, the real future will look like something in between.” Envisioning these different realities can help determine what kinds of crop improvements are allowed or needed. The scenarios should be highly unlikely, but not impossible, and they should not overlap with each other, but rather account for a wide range of possibilities.

One of the key components of the project was engaging stakeholders in the conversation. Initially, plant scientists were involved in the development of these four scenarios, as well as other industry leaders from the food and plant industry. The results were then presented to the wider community, such as farmers, the breeding industry, consumers, and other scientists, who refined their strategies and the scenarios. This was done in workshops, surveys and in citizen juries, particularly to obtain citizens’ opinions on new breeding technologies, a highly controversial topic. Citizens’ juries consisted of a cross-section of the population in terms of age, gender, education, and attitude levels towards the technology.

Klein Lankhorst stresses that even when opinions initially differ on a subject, new viewpoints can always be formed. “At the beginning, the tendency was that people were against the use of new breeding technologies, but after two days of intense discussion, they were more prone to agreeing to their effectiveness under certain conditions, such as that they are safe, affordable, well-regulated, and only used in situations highly relevant to society at large.” The exercise showed that involving the broader society in complex, scientific questions by explaining the subject thoroughly, weighing the pros and cons, and leaving space for independent judgment, it is possible to come to well-informed opinions that may be different to initial preconceptions.

With a view towards 2050, Klein Lankhorst wonders if we will manage to increase productivity to feed a global population and if we will do this without disrupting our natural ecosystem. In this sense, foresight can help to approach concerns and action points for ecosystem degradation early on, such as employing sustainable farming, selecting climate-adaptable crops, and increasing crop resource use efficiency. “It’s really important to identify these critical action points, what is important to do in the future, but also to try to find early indicators, to see whether we are heading into that kind of future.”

However, there are challenges, including the divergent time scales between policymaking and the development of biological solutions. While politicians plan for short-term mandates, plant breeding technologies and cycles take at least 20 to 30 years to develop. “I tell politicians we have to start now to solve this problem by 2050. What they define as a problem is not one we can solve in a current mandate period.”

Klein Lankhorst envisions a scenario that combines ecological farming with high-tech model farming in order to increase crop yields by 2050. Ecological farming makes use of methods that promote soil health while minimising the use of synthetic inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers, while high-tech model farming integrates cutting-edge technologies and data analytics to inform decision-making. Combining the two would leverage the power of technology to create more sustainable and efficient farming systems. However, Klein Lankhorst is concerned that policymakers think along either one or the other solution. ”I would really like for there to be a vision that could integrate things,” He hopes. “that these systems are not antagonists but can support each other and can be developed in synergy.” In this way, it could be possible to increase productivity on existing agricultural grounds without touching rainforests and biodiversity.

“The lesson is that for anything that you propose, technologically or otherwise, it’s important to involve society and consider the pros and the cons and developing products that benefit consumers directly. I am for using all available technologies, but we need to involve all of society to explain why are doing this and why it is so important.”


This is an article from the Horizon Futures Watch Newsletter (Issue I, May 2023) presented by Foresight on Demand

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