FFAR, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID support cutting-edge research by University of Illinois to boost yields, reduce hunger and support farmer livelihoods
Researchers led by Stephen Long (left), University of Illinois, and Don Ort (right), USDA-ARS, will continue transformative work to increase yields of food crops for farmers worldwide through Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency with the support of a five–year, $45-million reinvestment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation , the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the U.K. Department for International Development. Photo: Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois. Download Photo.
The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a nonprofit organization established through bipartisan congressional support in the 2014 Farm Bill, is contributing $15 million to a five-year, $45-million research project at the University of Illinois that has boosted crop yields 20 percent by improving photosynthetic efficiency. FFAR joined co-funders the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), and government and agricultural leaders today at the University of Illinois in Champaign to announce the investment and see the transformative research firsthand.
The project, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or RIPE, will harness a plant’s photosynthesis process to increase output, or yield, in food crops including soybeans, cassava and cowpeas. Photosynthesis is how plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow. The $45 million reinvestment in RIPE supports this critical, ongoing research meant to break through the stagnant yield ceilings for several staple food crops, providing farmers around the world with another tool to enhance global food security and their own livelihoods.
“The RIPE project has proven that photosynthesis can be redesigned to increase crop yields by at least 20 percent without additional resources,” said FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey, Ph.D. “FFAR is proud to support this innovative leap toward reducing global hunger, an issue that often seems intractable in the face of a growing population, changing climate, and limited natural resources.”
Fifty years of photosynthesis research, with several landmark discoveries at University of Illinois through state and federal partnerships, enabled RIPE to simulate the 170-step process of photosynthesis from the inner workings of enzymes to interactions between neighboring plants in the field. RIPE used these models to identify seven potential pipelines to improve photosynthesis, and with the support of an initial $25 million, five-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, began work in 2012 to try to turn their ideas into sustainable yield increases. Today’s announcement ensures that this work will continue.
“Today’s report on world hunger and nutrition from five UN agencies reinforces our mission to work doggedly to provide new means to eradicate world hunger and malnutrition by 2030 and beyond,” said RIPE Director Stephen Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the University of Illinois. “This investment is timely—annual yield gains are stagnating and means to achieve substantial improvement must be developed now if we are to provide sufficient food by 2030 and beyond for a growing and increasingly urban world population when food production must also adapt sustainably to a changing climate.”
Last year, RIPE published work in Science that described how these pipelines could increase crop productivity by 20 percent – a dramatic increase compared to typical annual yield gains of just one percent or less. Two other RIPE pipelines have now shown even greater yield improvements in greenhouse and preliminary field trials.
“Our modeling predicts that several of these improvements can be combined to achieve additive yield increases, providing real hope that a 50 percent yield increase in just three decades is possible,” said Long. “With the reinvestment, a central priority will be to move these improved photosynthesis traits into commodity crops of the developed world, like soybeans, as well as crops that matter in the developing world, including cassava and cowpeas.”
Researchers anticipate commercial seeds benefiting from this research will be available to farmers within approximately 15 years. RIPE and its funders will ensure their high-yielding food crops are globally available, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and affordable for smallholder farmers to help feed the world’s hungriest and reduce poverty. Agriculture has been shown to reduce poverty four times more effectively than growth in other sectors.
About Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE)
Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) is engineering staple food crops to more efficiently turn the sun’s energy into food to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the U.K. Department for International Development.
RIPE is led by the University of Illinois in partnership with the USDA/ARS, University of Essex, Lancaster University, Australian National University, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, University of California, Berkeley, and Louisiana State University.