Creating a Better Leaf
Could tinkering with photosynthesis prevent a global food crisis?
By Elizabeth Kolbert December 6, 2021
This story begins about two billion years ago, when the world, if not young, exactly, was a lot more impressionable. The planet spun faster, so the sun rose every twenty-one hours. The earliest continents were forming—Arctica, for instance, which persists as bits and pieces of Siberia. Most of the globe was given over to oceans, and the oceans teemed with microbes.
Some of these microbes—the group known as cyanobacteria—had mastered a peculiarly powerful form of alchemy. They lived off sunlight, which they converted into sugar. As a waste product, they gave off oxygen. Cyanobacteria were so plentiful, and so good at what they did, that they changed the world. They altered the oceans’ chemistry, and then the atmosphere’s. Formerly in short supply, oxygen became abundant. Anything that couldn’t tolerate it either died off or retreated to some dark, airless corner.
One day, another organism—a sort of proto-alga—devoured a cyanobacterium. Instead of being destroyed, as you might expect, the bacterium took up residence, like Jonah in the whale. This accommodation, unlikely as it was, sent life in a new direction. The secret to photosynthesis passed to the alga and all its heirs.
A billion years went by. The planet’s rotation slowed. The continents crashed together to form a supercontinent, Rodinia, then drifted apart again. The alga’s heirs diversified.
One side of the family stuck to the water. Another branch set out to colonize dry land. The first explorers stayed small and low to the ground. (These were probably related to liverworts.) Eventually, they were joined by the ancestors of today’s ferns and mosses. There was so much empty space—and hence available light—that plants, as one botanist has put it, found terrestrial life “irresistible.” They spread out their fronds and began to grow taller. The rise of plants made possible the rise of plant-eating animals. During the Carboniferous period, towering tree ferns and giant club mosses covered the earth, and insects with wingspans of more than two feet flitted through them.
Some two hundred million years later, in the early Cretaceous, plants with flowers appeared on the scene. They were so fabulously successful that they soon took over. (Charles Darwin was deeply troubled by the sudden appearance of flowering plants in the fossil record, describing it as an “abominable mystery.”) Later still, grasses and cacti evolved.
Through it all, plants continued to make a living more or less the same way they had since that ancient cyanobacterium took up with the alga. Photosynthesis remained remarkably stable over thousands of millennia of natural selection. It didn’t change when humans began to domesticate plants, ten thousand years ago, or, later, when they figured out how to irrigate, fertilize, and, finally, hybridize them. It always worked well enough to power the planet—that is, until now.
Stephen Long is a professor of plant biology and crop sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the director of a project called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or ripe. The premise of ripe is that, as remarkable as photosynthesis may be, it needs to do better.
At seventy-one, Long is thin and fit, with a craggy face and a voice so soft it borders on a murmur. He grew up in London in a working-class family and attended what he describes as “not the best” high school. (It’s since been closed.) One of the teachers at the school stood out—a plant enthusiast who took her students on frequent field trips. Inspired, Long decided to study agricultural botany at the University of Reading. Midway to his degree, he took a year off to work for a British food company, Tate & Lyle, which owned sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean and did a lot of sugar refining. Some at the company thought it might be possible to dispense with the plantations and even the cane and coax plant cells to produce sugar in vats. The idea didn’t pan out—“It never became economically feasible,” Long told me when, in July, I went to visit him at his office—but it got him interested in the mechanics of photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis takes place within a plant’s chloroplasts—tiny organelles that are the descendants of that original captured cyanobacterium. When a photon is absorbed by a chloroplast, it initiates a cascade of reactions that convert light into chemical energy. These reactions are mediated by proteins, which are encoded by genes. Through a second series of reactions, the chemical energy is used to build carbohydrates. This requires more proteins. Photosynthesis has been called “one of the most complex of all biological processes,” and when Long was starting out a great deal was still unknown about how, exactly, it worked. Gradually, using new molecular tools, researchers succeeded in filling in the gaps. Photosynthesis, they learned, requires the completion of some hundred and fifty discrete steps and involves roughly that number of genes.
The more that was discovered about the intricacies of photosynthesis, the more was revealed about its inefficiency. The comparison is often made to photovoltaic cells. Those on the market today convert about twenty per cent of the sunlight that strikes them into electricity, and, in labs, researchers have achieved rates of almost fifty per cent. Plants convert only about one per cent of the sunlight that hits them into growth. In the case of crop plants, on average only about half of one per cent of the light is converted into energy that people can use. The contrast isn’t really fair to biology, since plants construct themselves, whereas P.V. cells have to be manufactured with energy from another source. Plants also store their own energy, while P.V. cells require separate batteries for that. Still, researchers who have tried to make apples-to-apples (or silicon-to-carbon) calculations have concluded that plants come out the losers.
Long went on to get a Ph.D., and then took a teaching job at the University of Essex, on England’s east coast. He became convinced that photosynthesis’s inefficiency presented an opportunity. If the process could be streamlined, plants that had spent millennia just chugging along could become champions. For agriculture, the implications were profound. Potentially, new crop varieties could be created that could produce more with less.
“All of our food, directly or indirectly, comes from the process of photosynthesis,” Long told me. “And we know that even our very best crops are only achieving a fraction of photosynthesis’s theoretical efficiency. So, if we can work out how to improve photosynthesis, we can boost yields. We won’t have to go on destroying yet more land for crops—we can try to produce more on the land we’re already using.”
Other biologists were skeptical. Surely, they observed, if there were a way to improve photosynthesis that was truly viable, and not just theoretical, then, at some point during the past several hundred million years, plants would have hit upon it. What their argument missed, Long thought, were the exigencies of evolution itself. To be preserved, biological systems don’t have to be optimized. They just have to be functional.
“Evolution is not really about being productive,” Long told me. “It’s about getting your genes into the next generation.”
In 1999, Long decided that he would create his own version of photosynthesis. By this time, he’d moved to the University of Illinois, where many of the major discoveries about the process had been made. Long’s idea was to build a computer simulation that would model each of the hundred and fifty-odd steps in photosynthesis as a differential equation. The effort dragged on for years, in part because Long’s program kept crashing. Eventually, he got in touch with a computer scientist who worked for nasa on rocket engines.
“He said, ‘Oh, I had exactly the same problem, and this is the routine I used,’ ” Long recalled. “And we worked with him and used that routine, and, bingo, it worked.” Because photosynthesis is so complicated, and because the math involved is also complicated, Long’s model requires a phenomenal amount of computing power. To simulate the performance of a single leaf over the course of a few minutes, it must make millions of calculations.
Once his model, which he dubbed e-photosynthesis, was up and running, Long could create new leaves without the bother of actually growing anything. He could probe the weaknesses of photosynthesis and test possible fixes. What would happen, for example, if a certain gene were ginned up to produce more of a certain enzyme? Would this accelerate photosynthesis or just gum up the works? The model would analyze the results of each virtual intervention, or hack. “Of course, ninety-nine times out of a hundred you’re making things worse,” Long said.
It was the hundredth hack that kept things interesting. Long found that, by rejiggering certain steps, nature could be improved upon. In 2006, he published a paper outlining half a dozen “opportunities for increasing photosynthesis.” Among the people intrigued by the idea were some high-level staff members at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2011, the foundation invited Long and some of his colleagues to Seattle to discuss their work. Six months later, the foundation invited the group back. Long and his collaborators spent a week on Bainbridge Island, in Puget Sound, drawing up a funding proposal, and on the last day of their stay they presented their pitch to Bill Gates. In 2012, the foundation awarded them twenty-five million dollars, and ripe was created. Later, the project received additional funding from Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office and from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture, a joint public-private venture based in Washington, D.C.
“It will take multiple innovations to solve the global food crisis,” Gates told me via e-mail. These include seed varieties that can better withstand drought, crops that can better fight off disease, and “game-changing discoveries that will lead to better harvests.”
One of the opportunities that Long identified in his 2006 paper involves a process known as nonphotochemical quenching, or N.P.Q. Obviously, plants need light, but, like us, they can suffer from too much of it. N.P.Q. enables them to protect themselves by dissipating excess light as heat. The problem is that N.P.Q. is sluggish; once initiated, it’s slow to stop, even as light conditions change. Long’s model suggested that some clever genetic modifications could make the process nimbler.
Researchers at ripe set about testing this proposition on tobacco plants, which are sort of the lab rats of the ag world. They inserted three extra genes into the plants, then raised them in greenhouses. The modified plants did, indeed, outperform ordinary tobacco plants—they grew faster and put on more weight. The team then ran field trials. Long nervously awaited the outcome. The results were even better than he’d hoped: the modified plants outperformed the control plants by up to twenty per cent.
When the resulting paper was published, in Science, it made news around the world. “Genetic breakthrough,” the BBC declared. Long was interviewed by the Big Ten Network, which, in addition to airing the conference’s sporting events, sometimes does features on Big Ten professors. He told the interviewer that the day the results of the field trials came in was one of the most exciting of his life. “Don’t tell my wife that,” he added. The network showed the clip on the jumbotron during a University of Illinois football game. Long and his wife, Ann, were watching at home.
“I got an elbow in the ribs for that,” he recalled.
In 1967, two sober-minded men published a book with a sensational title: “Famine—1975!” The authors, William and Paul Paddock, were brothers; William was an agronomist, Paul a retired Foreign Service officer. “A collision between exploding population and static agriculture is imminent,” the Paddocks wrote. They declared, “The conclusion is clear: there is no possibility of improving agriculture . . . soon enough to avert famine.”
Many experts shared their anxiety. In the mid-sixties, the global population was growing by more than two per cent a year, which is believed to be the highest rate in human history. In a number of developing countries—Brazil and Ethiopia, for instance—the annual rate was closer to three per cent. Agricultural production wasn’t keeping up.
“The world food situation is now more precarious than at any time since the period of acute shortage immediately after the second world war,” the director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Binay Ranjan Sen, wrote. He warned that unless dramatic action was taken “Malthusian correctives” would “inexorably come into play.”
“Famine—1975!” was followed by “The Population Bomb,” by the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, published in 1968. Ehrlich, too, declared disaster unavoidable. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” he wrote. “In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich became a regular guest on the “Tonight Show,” and “The Population Bomb” sold more than two million copies.
The catastrophe failed to materialize. Ehrlich and the Paddocks were wrong about the future of agriculture. Even as they were writing, the seeds—both literal and metaphorical—were being sown for what would become known as the Green Revolution.
At the vanguard of the revolution was Norman Borlaug, a plant pathologist who worked for the Rockefeller Foundation at an agricultural-research station in Mexico. By painstakingly breeding wheat over the course of two decades, he developed a series of highly productive, disease-resistant varieties. The varieties were unusually stocky—they’d been bred using dwarf strains—and this allowed them to put more energy into their kernels and less into their stalks. As the varieties were adopted, yields shot up; in the two decades following the publication of “Famine—1975!,” wheat production in Mexico nearly doubled. During the same period in India, it more than tripled.
Building on Borlaug’s work, breeders in the Philippines created high-yield, semi-dwarf strains of rice, which led to similar productivity increases. This work was motivated as much by political impulses as by humanitarian ones; boosting rice output might be described as the “hearts and bellies” approach to fighting Communism in Asia.
For his efforts, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. “More than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world,” the chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated.
Like most revolutions, the green one had unintended consequences. The new, high-yield varieties were needy; to realize their full potential, they required plenty of fertilizer, pesticides, and water. These “inputs,” in turn, required money. The bulk of the benefits thus accrued to those with resources. Farms became bigger and more mechanized, developments that often cost the very poorest agricultural workers their livelihoods. Research suggests that the new varieties, combined with the agricultural practices they promoted, exacerbated inequality.
“The availability of 60% cheaper rice would be little consolation to someone who had lost 100% of their income as a result of the Green Revolution,” Raj Patel, a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has written.
The ecological costs, too, were high, and by many accounts these are still growing. Fertilizer runoff has filled rivers and lakes with nutrients, producing algae blooms and aquatic “dead zones.” Increased pesticide use has had the perverse effect of doing in many of the beneficial insects that once kept pests in check. The demands of irrigation have emptied aquifers. In the northern Indian state of Punjab, an early center of the Green Revolution, groundwater is being pumped out so much faster than it can be replenished that the water table is falling by about three feet a year. Experts have warned that, if current rates of pumping continue, in twenty-five years the state, which is sometimes referred to as “the food bowl of India,” could be reduced to a desert.
“The situation is alarming,” Rana Gurjit Singh, a member of Punjab’s Legislative Assembly, observed a few months ago. “It is time to wake up.”
It is often said that the world now needs a New Green Revolution, or a Second Green Revolution, or Green Revolution 2.0. The rate of yield growth for crops like wheat, rice, and corn appears to be plateauing, and the number of people who are hungry is once again on the rise. The world’s population, meanwhile, continues to increase; now almost eight billion, it’s projected to reach nearly ten billion by 2050. Income gains in countries like China are increasing the consumption of meat, which requires ever more grain and forage to produce. To meet the expected demand, global agricultural output will have to rise by almost seventy per cent during the next thirty years. Such an increase would be tough to achieve in the best of times, which the coming decades are not likely to be. Recent research suggests that climate change has already begun to cut into yields, and, as the planet warms, the bite will only get bigger. (Agriculture itself is a major contributor to climate change.) Devoting more land to farming isn’t really an option, or, at least, not a good one. Most of the world’s best soils are already under cultivation, and mowing down forests to plant corn or soybeans would lead to still more warming.
“At no other point in history has agriculture been faced with such an array of familiar and unfamiliar risks” is how a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization put it.
“We need to up our game,” Enock Chikava, who grew up on a ten-acre farm in Zimbabwe and now serves as the interim director for agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, told me. “We can’t continue business as usual.”
One day while I was in Urbana, Long took me to visit ripe’s test fields. This was in the midst of one of last summer’s brutal heat waves, and to avoid the midmorning sun we met up at 8 a.m. Even so, it was sweltering.
ripe’s test plots are to the average farm what a Tesla is to a Model T. Looming above the plots are hundred-and-fifty-foot-tall metal towers strung with guy wires. The wires are controlled by computerized winches imported from Austria—a setup that was originally devised to film professional sports matches. ripe’s setup carries sensors that, among other things, shoot out laser beams and detect infrared radiation. When I visited, the sensors had just been installed; the idea was to track the plants’ progress on a day-to-day basis.
Long led me over to a plot surrounded by an electric fence. It was divided into forty identical rectangles, each studded with white tags. The rectangles were planted with different strains of genetically modified soybeans, which had been tweaked in much the same way that the tobacco plants had, to speed up N.P.Q. Long bent over some rows labelled E27.
“I might be imagining, but it looks like these are a little bit taller,” he said. He quickly added, “You’ve got to be very careful at this stage, though.” In the summer of 2020, the tweaked soy plants had produced significantly more soybeans than the control ones did. E27 had performed particularly well. But was this just a fluke? “We’re hoping to get the definitive answer this year,” Long told me.
In another plot, tobacco plants were growing low to the ground. These, he explained, represented an effort to address a different drag on photosynthesis, involving the enzyme RuBisCo.
To make sugars, plants use carbon dioxide they’ve taken in from the air. RuBisCo, which is believed to be the most abundant enzyme on the planet, in effect grabs the CO2 and sends it on to the sugar-making process. Like N.P.Q., RuBisCo is slow. Even more significantly, it’s error-prone. Sometimes, like an assembly-line worker who picks up the wrong part, it grabs a molecule of oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. (Presumably, RuBisCo makes this mistake because at the point it was first synthesized, billions of years ago, there was hardly any oxygen around to worry about.) When RuBisCo accidentally picks up O2, the plant produces a compound that’s toxic, which it then has to get rid of. The exercise is quite costly: it’s estimated that it can reduce the efficiency of photosynthesis by forty per cent. Using genes from bacteria and algae, the ripe team has developed “bypass” tobacco plants, which break down the toxic compound in fewer steps.
Long pointed to a muddy plot nearby. Had I arrived a few weeks earlier, he said, I would have found “bypass” potatoes growing there. These had been destroyed by heavy rains, and now it was too late in the season to replant. “It’s kind of been wrecked,” he said, with a sigh.
From the fields, we drove to an enormous greenhouse. Before entering it, we had to put on lab coats and sterile booties. Near the door were benches of tobacco plants wrapped in cellophane. The rest of the greenhouse was filled with long rows of what looked like DVD players. These turned out to be high-tech scales connected to a precision irrigation system. Plants could be placed on the scales and given measured sips of water; then they’d be automatically weighed to see how much bulk they’d put on. More than four hundred plants could be tested at once, and the results would quickly reveal which specimens with which genetic changes were the best performers. Someone flipped a switch, and a set of cameras mounted on scaffolding began to creep over the rows. The cameras, I was told, would produce a continuous stream of data about the plants, so that everything down to the curve of their leaves could be studied.
Since its founding, in 2012, ripe has expanded to include almost a hundred researchers across four continents. Long’s hope is that, in addition to the N.P.Q. and bypass tweaks, the project will come up with half a dozen other ways to “improve” photosynthesis. A team in Australia is looking at how to speed carbon dioxide’s journey to RuBisCo, and a team in England is looking at what happens right after RuBisCo does its job. The next step would be to get these genetic modifications into globally significant crop plants—in addition to soy and potatoes, ripe is working with corn, cowpeas, and cassava—and then into local varieties. (Farmers in different parts of the world plant different strains of corn and cassava that have been bred for local conditions.)
Long is particularly keen on getting photosynthetically souped-up seed to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that didn’t much benefit from the yield gains of the original Green Revolution. Today, more than two hundred million people there are chronically undernourished.
“If we can provide smallholder farmers in Africa with technologies that will produce more food and give them a better livelihood, that’s what really motivates the team,” Long told me. One of the Gates Foundation’s stipulations is that any breakthroughs that result from ripe’s work be made available “at an affordable price” to companies or government agencies that supply seed to farmers in the world’s poorest countries.
Before any of ripe’s creations could be planted in sub-Saharan Africa, though, or anywhere else, for that matter, all sorts of licenses would have to be obtained. (The gene-editing techniques that Long and his colleagues are using are themselves often patented.) Then the altered genes would have to be approved by the relevant agency in the nation in question, and the alterations would have to be bred into local varieties. So far, only a handful of African countries have O.K.’d genetically modified crops, and most of the approvals have been for G.M. cotton. A recent study noted that at least two dozen G.M. food crops—some modified for insect resistance, others for salt tolerance—have been submitted to regulatory agencies in the region but remain in limbo.
“A host of viable technologies continue to sit on the shelf, frequently due to regulatory paralysis,” the study observed. (In the U.S., practically all of the soy and corn grown is genetically modified; other approved G.M. food crops include apples, potatoes, papayas, sugar beets, and canola. In Europe, by contrast, G.M. crops are generally banned.) Meanwhile, to the extent that attitudes toward G.M. foods have been surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, a majority of people seem to be leery of them. A recent study conducted in Zimbabwe, for example, found that almost three-quarters of the respondents believed them to be “too risky.” And smallholder farmers don’t have enough land to leave buffer zones, which means that, if they grow G.M. crops that cross-pollinate, these could mix with, or contaminate, their non-G.M. neighbors.
When I asked Long about the advisability of developing genetically modified varieties for use in countries that don’t particularly seem to want them, he told me that, at a meeting with ripe researchers, a similar question had been posed to Bill Gates.
“His response was ‘Well, things might change if these predictions of food shortages come to pass,’ ” Long said. “ ‘And, if they do come to pass, it’s going to be too late to do this research.’ ”
Some thirty million years ago, a plant—no one knows exactly which one, but probably it was a grass—came up with its own hack to improve photosynthesis. The hack didn’t alter the steps involved in the process; instead, it added new ones. The new steps concentrated CO2 around RuBisCo, effectively eliminating the enzyme’s opportunity to make a mistake. (To extend the assembly-line metaphor, imagine a worker surrounded by crateloads of the right parts and none of the wrong ones.) At the time, carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere were falling—a trend that would continue more or less until humans figured out how to burn fossil fuels—so even though the hack cost the plant some energy, it offered a net gain. In fact, it proved so useful that other plants soon followed suit. What’s now known as C4 photosynthesis evolved independently at least forty-five times, in nineteen different plant families. (The term “C4” refers to a four-carbon compound that’s produced in one of the supplemental steps.) Nowadays, several of the world’s key crop plants are C4, including corn, millet, and sorghum, and so are several of the world’s key weeds, like crabgrass and tumbleweed.
C4 photosynthesis isn’t just more efficient than ordinary photosynthesis, which is known as C3. It also requires less water and less nitrogen, and so, in turn, less fertilizer. About twenty-five years ago, a plant physiologist named John Sheehy came up with what many other plant physiologists considered to be an absurd idea. He decided that rice, which is a C3 plant, should be transformed into a C4. Like Long, Sheehy was from England, but he was working in the Philippines, at the research institute where, in the nineteen-sixties, breeders had developed the rice varieties that helped spark the Green Revolution. In 1999, Sheehy hosted a meeting at the institute to discuss his idea. The general opinion of the participants was that it was impossible.
Sheehy didn’t give up. In 2006, nearing retirement, he pulled together a second meeting on the topic. Again, the attendees were skeptical. But this time around they decided that Sheehy’s scheme was at least worth a try. Jane Langdale, a plant biologist from Oxford, was among the researchers at the second meeting. “There was a sense that it was now or never,” she said recently, when I spoke to her over Zoom. “We were either going to have to get younger people interested in this or lose the opportunity.” Thus was born the C4 Rice Project, which Langdale now heads. (Sheehy died in 2019.)
The C4 Rice Project could be thought of as ripe’s edgier cousin. It, too, is funded by the Gates Foundation, and it, too, aims to feed the world by reëngineering it from the chloroplast up. “Given that the C4 pathway is up to 50% more efficient than the C3 pathway, introducing C4 traits into a C3 crop would have a dramatic impact on crop yield,” the project’s Web site observes.
What makes the work so challenging is that C4 plants don’t just go through extra steps in photosynthesis; they have a different anatomy. Among other things, the veins in the leaves of C4 plants are much more closely packed than those in C3 plants, and this spacing is crucial to the enterprise. The C4 Rice Project involves thirty researchers in five countries. Some of the scientists are focussed on transforming the plant’s leaves, others on altering its biochemistry.
“We’re working to try to do these two things in parallel,” Langdale explained to me. “But ultimately we have to do them both.”
The project has run into lots of obstacles; still, it has inched forward. Langdale’s lab has succeeded in producing rice plants with a greater volume of veins in their leaves, though the volume is still not quite high enough. Other labs have developed rice plants that generate the crucial four-carbon compound; these plants, however, don’t take the next step, which is to give up one of the carbons to be grabbed by RuBisCo.
“When we started, everybody thought we were mad,” Langdale said. “And it has not been an easy journey. But I think now people look and think, You know—they actually are making progress.
“I don’t know whether we’ll ever make rice with the full C4 anatomy and the biochemistry,” she continued. “But I do think along the way we are going to find things that improve yield and improve efficiency, even if it’s not the full shebang.”
A few days after I spoke to Langdale, three Punjabi villagers were hit by a truck at the site of a demonstration near New Delhi. (The victims were all women in their fifties and sixties.) During the past year, hundreds of thousands of farmers in India have protested against the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and for months tens of thousands have been camped out along the roads leading into the capital.
In an immediate sense, the target of the farmers’ ire is a set of laws pushed through Parliament by Modi’s party; these, they fear, could lead to an end to government price supports. In a deeper sense, though, the tensions go back to the Green Revolution. To encourage farmers to plant the higher-yielding, thirstier varieties of rice and wheat, the Indian government introduced the price-support system, in the nineteen-sixties. Now the subsidies have produced gluts of these commodities, even as growing them is depleting the country’s aquifers, and the government wants to prod farmers to move away from the crops it once prodded them to plant. To the country’s millions of farmers, most of whom own fewer than five acres, changes in the status quo seem likely to lead only to more misery.
“Many people would argue that the price supports that are currently given are barely adequate to cover the costs of production,” Sudha Narayanan, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute’s office in New Delhi, told me. But farmers depend on the supports to at least set a floor on their incomes: “They are seen as a kind of insurance.” Late last month, in a surprise move, Parliament voted to repeal the laws, but that has not put an end to the protests; farmers are now calling for an extension of price supports to other crops.
How to produce a second Green Revolution without repeating, or compounding, the mistakes of the first is a question that dogs efforts to boost yields, particularly in the Global South. With climate change, the challenges are, in many ways, even steeper than they were in the nineteen-sixties. The research institutes that helped drive the original Green Revolution, which include the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, in Mexico, where Norman Borlaug was stationed, and the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines, where John Sheehy worked, are part of a consortium called CGIAR. (The name comes from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.) CGIAR is in the midst of restructuring itself.
“Fundamentally, the reorganization is about trying to attack what we call twenty-first-century problems, paying attention to the critique of the Green Revolution,” Channing Arndt, a division director at the International Food Policy Research Institute, which is part of CGIAR, told me. The Green Revolution “definitely brought a lot of calories,” he continued. “But it also brought pollution and other problems, which we don’t want to repeat.”
One way to look at ripe and the C4 Rice Project is as efforts to bring twenty-first-century tools to bear on twenty-first-century problems. For better or worse, we now have the ability to tinker with life at the most basic level, and this opens up all sorts of possibilities, from treating genetic disorders to manufacturing biological weapons. Crop plants that make fewer mistakes in photosynthesis, or that complete the process more efficiently, would produce more food per acre, potentially with fewer inputs. Not only humans would benefit; so, too, would the myriad species whose habitats would be spared. “Twenty years from now, this could be making a major difference,” Edward Mabaya, a research professor at Cornell, told me.
But, in many ways, the twenty-first century’s problems are holdovers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it’s not clear whether the new tools are a better match for them than the old. As Mabaya, who also serves as the chief scientific adviser for the African Seed Access Index, pointed out to me, researchers have already developed plenty of improved varieties for sub-Saharan Africa, using conventional breeding methods.
“Most of the varieties, maybe eighty per cent of them, just end up on the shelf,” he said. “They never reach smallholder farmers.” (The Access Index, which is working to identify the choke points in African seed systems, is another group funded, in part, by the Gates Foundation.)
Vara Prasad, a crop scientist at Kansas State University and the director of one of its Feed the Future Innovation Labs, made much the same point to me: a majority of the smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia aren’t planting the improved varieties that already exist. Sometimes the issue is cost. For instance, with hybrids, the seeds can’t be saved, and have to be repurchased every year; though the extra yield should cover the expense, smallholder farmers may just not have the cash. Sometimes the obstacles can be difficult even to identify.
“We always talk about the technologies, but we ignore the social piece,” Prasad told me. “We need to understand the barriers to adoption, and we don’t have a clear understanding of those.
“I’ve looked at the ripe project,” he went on. “Are there anthropologists on it? Any economists? Any nutrition folks? Gender-empowerment folks? We really need to be thinking about social innovation here, not only biophysical innovation—and I’m a biophysical scientist.”
Borlaug himself warned against putting too much faith in technology to solve society’s ills. In his Nobel Lecture, in 1970, he called the Green Revolution a “temporary success”; if the population continued to climb, this success, he feared, would prove “ephemeral.”
“There are no miracles in agricultural production,” he said. And, even if production could keep up with population growth, there would remain the issue of distribution, of bridging the great global divide between the haves, who “live in a luxury never before experienced,” and the have-nots, who send their kids to bed hungry.
“It is a sad fact that on this earth at this late date there are still two worlds,” Borlaug observed. ♦