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Crop innovations can protect yields and improve food quality in a changing climate

Innovations from chemistry and biology will boost crop yields and improve food quality around the world

by Melody M. Bomgardner
February 10, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 6

Credit: Shutterstock | Farmers harvest soybeans in the US Midwest.


As spring approaches in the breadbaskets of the world, farmers are getting ready for a busy planting season. In Adams County, Iowa, corn and soybean grower Ray Gaesser’s plans revolve around one critical goal: planting his 2,200 hectares as quickly as possible to beat the rain.

What Gaesser once did in the course of a week, he must now accomplish in 4 days. Planting crops in half the time is a logistical challenge, but necessary. In Iowa and much of the Midwest, changes in weather patterns mean that for stretches of April and May, the soil is much too wet to plant in.

Since 2010, it’s not unusual for 15–20 cm of rain to fall in 1 day, sometimes pounding down at rates of 10 cm/h, Gaesser says. His family’s years of work building the soil, terracing the fields, and installing waterways are “not anywhere near adequate to protect the soil from those rain events,” he says. The dry times are tougher, too: during the growing season when plants need moisture, the Midwest can experience long stretches of no rain. And at harvest time the rain returns.

Gaesser expects his family won’t have it any easier in the future. Climate models agree. In fact, farmers all over the world will face similar challenges and worse. As global temperatures rise, weather extremes will be amplified in the midlatitude regions, home to the world’s major breadbaskets: wet weather patterns will get wetter, and dry ones drier.

Meanwhile, a warming climate will cause a parallel decrease in productivity in warmer and drier regions, particularly in developing countries in Africa and Asia, where most farmers are already hampered by small landholdings, unproductive soil, and lack of access to fertilizers and pesticides. According to the United Nations, more people around the world are going hungry each year, and climate change is partly to blame.

To ensure that the world’s growing population will have enough to eat, innovations that help farmers withstand the impacts of climate change need to reach farmers in developed and developing regions alike.

Help on the horizon

Climate models can forecast the effect of warming temperatures on agriculture, but they cannot model the impacts of extreme weather, and it’s difficult to predict how climate change will affect the world’s food production capacity. What researchers know is that higher global temperatures intensify weather systems and keep them in place for longer periods of time.

This aerial photo shows how farmers can install drainage, according to a field's topography, to mitigate heavy rain events.
Credit: Warren Formo/Ag Water Exchange
The brown squiggle in this midwestern US field is designed for drainage. The pattern is tailored to the land's topography and designed to mitigate the impact of heavy rainfall on the soil.

Amid the uncertainty, one trend is clear: new technologies that help food producers combat rising temperatures and alleviate crop stress caused by overwhelming rains, heat, and droughts will be in extremely high demand.

Chemists have long helped farmers preserve yields when weather conditions are not ideal, primarily by developing pesticides and disease treatments. But those tools are not available to every farmer who needs them. What’s more, the pace of chemical innovation has slowed considerably, even as older products are being phased out because of concerns about environmental and human health effects and because pests have become resistant to them.

That means the role of chemists and life scientists in support of crop production is changing. They will be called on to help farmers produce more food using less fertilizer and energy and fewer pesticides.

Reflecting these concerns, ag giant Bayer’s R&D pipeline has shifted from an emphasis on traditional chemical-based insecticides and herbicides to include more work on fungicides, crop traits, and microbial products that boost plant health.

“We are working with multidisciplinary solutions,” says Bob Reiter, head of R&D at Bayer Crop Science. “Farmers are our customers, but the industry is aligning for the best outcomes for consumers and the planet,” he told attendees at the 2019 World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit.

Fungicides fend off mildew and mold organisms that consume germinating seedlings and can even kill plants late in the season. The wet, cool soils that now predominate at planting times on farms like Gaesser’s host huge populations of these pathogens. Bayer is developing molecules to reduce plant diseases in corn, soy, cereals, rice, and oilseed crops like canola. Future products will target disease organisms including leaf spot and soybean rust.

Meanwhile, major agriculture firms and start-ups are screening thousands of microbes to find beneficial ones that might be given to crops as a climate-proofing probiotic cocktail. Helpful microorganisms colonize soils, plant roots, stems, and leaves, making nutrients from the environment available to plants by fixing nitrogen from the air and breaking down inorganic phosphates in soil.

Novozymes, a microbe specialist, is working with Bayer to develop products that enhance early plant vigor. Faster, stronger root and shoot growth helps plants withstand stress from low moisture and can improve yields. Bayer is also backing microbe start-ups Pivot Bio and Ginkgo Bioworks.

Most companies have been developing microbe products aimed at growers in the US, Brazil, and Europe. It is not clear when or how similar products will reach developing regions or how well they will perform in tropical or semitropical climates.

However, Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO of BioConsortia, a start-up developing teams of yield-enhancing microbes, says there will be opportunities to expand into developing countries. He says these products have the potential to be easier to use than traditional yield boosters, such as fertilizers, because they are potent in small volumes. Microbial populations grow along with the plant. That could make distribution cheaper and easier compared with today’s bulky pesticides and fertilizers. And it could save farmers the expense and work of reapplying chemicals.

BioConsortia researchers are using fluorescent tagging to learn how well its microbe groups colonize different soil environments. Meadows-Smith says the factors that govern whether microbes flourish are likely soil temperature and pH, both areas of focus for the company’s researchers.

Israel’s STK Bio-Ag Technologies is specifically targeting markets outside the midlatitudes. The company makes crop protection products based on plant extracts as well as hybrids that combine these extracts with chemical active ingredients. STK sells products in several countries in South America. In 2010, it expanded to the Philippines and South Korea, and now it is entering China, with hopes to go to Thailand and Vietnam.

Shay Shaanan, STK’s head of R&D and business development, says the products are more expensive than generic pesticides but that farmers growing high-value crops such as fruit and vegetables can usually afford them. Because the products contain up to 100 active molecules and have many modes of action, they can help plants survive multiple environmental stresses and pest pressures, Shaanan says. He reports that STK’s products are popular with banana growers in the Philippines, tomato farmers in Brazil, and rice growers in Colombia.

A more straightforward way to close the yield gap between farmers in resource-poor and resource-rich settings would be to ensure they have the same level of access to fertilizers, particularly nitrogen ones. This could, however, exacerbate the problem of climate change by boosting carbon emissions in Africa and Asia: ammonia production is a major contributor to agriculture’s carbon footprint.

Greener alternatives for making nitrogen would be a boon for agriculture around the world but require significant investments in R&D and capital spending. Unfortunately, industry does not yet have a way to recoup those investments—and that has stymied progress, says Runeel Daliah, an analyst at Lux Research.

An ideal approach would be to replace today’s massive fertilizer plants with smaller regional ones that run on renewable energy. Daliah points to efforts by Atmonia, an early-stage start-up based in Iceland. Its scientists have identified potential catalysts, used in an electrochemical cell, that can reduce atmospheric nitrogen to aqueous ammonia. The technology needs further development to reduce the amount of energy needed so that it can run on solar power, but the concept is promising, Daliah says.

Two futures
Climate change will worsen today’s food production disparities between rich and poor regions in 2050 compared to a scenario without climate change.

Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

This map shows that farming regions farther from the equator will see agriculture productivity improve with warming temperatures, while regions closer to the equator will see productivity decrease.
  • In developed countries

    High agricultural productivity

    High per-capita arable land

    Net food exporters

    High use of inputs per hectare

    Citizens spend less than 10% of wages on food

    High availability of affordable, high-quality protein

    Postharvest, preconsumer rate of food waste: 5–10%

    Less than 10% of population works in farming

    Large investments in agricultural technology

  • In developing countries

    Low agricultural productivity

    Low per-capital arable land

    Net food importers

    Low use of inputs per hectare

    Citizens spend more than 50% of wages on food

    Low availability of affordable, high-quality protein

    Postharvest, preconsumer rate of food waste: greater than 30%

    More than 50% of population works in farming

    Small investments in agricultural technology

Sources: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Delivering on food quality

As these technologies for boosting productivity slowly make their way out of the lab and to farmers in the developed world, major problems will remain in resource-poor regions. The UN projects that food-insecure countries will be forced to increase imports of commodities like wheat and rice to meet caloric demands of growing populations.

This photo shows healthy bananas treated wtih a natural fungicide from STK Bio-Ag.
Credit: STK Bio-Ag
These bananas, grown in the Philippines, were treated with a broad-spectrum biofungicide from STK Bio-Ag.

But merely importing more grains is not the solution, says Martin Bloem, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. He sees a conflict between two laudable goals: combating malnutrition and combating climate change. Stunting, caused by a lack of dietary choline and essential amino acids, negatively affects brain and organ development, particularly in children 5 years old and younger. Only quality protein, such as that in eggs and milk, can deliver those nutrients. Low-income families often rely on plant-based diets, heavy in starchy grains, that fall short of those nutrients. “The best climate diet is not best for prevention of stunting,” Bloem says.

Innovations in food science could help the world resolve these apparently conflicting needs. The now-expanding list of better-tasting alternatives to meat, eggs, and dairy products could benefit populations in developing regions and deliver essential nutrients missing in diets heavy in starchy grains.

This photo shows STK's biobased fungicide destroying a fungal organism.
Credit: STK Bio-Ag
A crop-threatening fungal organism is destroyed by a plant-derived fungicide from STK Bio-Ag.

In India, Varun Deshpande is working to pave the way for alternative protein products in his role as managing director for the country’s affiliate of the Good Food Institute, an advocacy group for plant-based food. “We can create products that offer affordable protein, are micronutrient rich, and are good interventions to prevent malnutrition,” he says.

Demand for meat is growing among the world’s poor, particularly in India, where poor families have a strong desire for a more westernized diet and try to eat meat at least once a week, Deshpande says. “They are rapidly ramping up demand for protein and meat, especially as incomes rise. But we may undo a lot of work on sustainability taking place now.”

People in India spend a majority of their incomes on food, so Deshpande is looking for alternative protein products that are less expensive than meat. Chemists working in the food and packaging industries can create new, alternative protein products that are shelf stable, making them more affordable and easy to distribute to far-flung communities.

Deshpande says he’d like to see India’s farmers adopt crops that can be used to make alternative protein locally. Those include beans and peas that fix nitrogen in the soil. Another useful crop is millet. It thrives in low-nutrient, dry soils and provides nutrients, such as calcium, iron, zinc, and iodine, that are often missing in the diets of people living in developing countries.

“We need to encourage the best, most functional, nutritious crops for our regions and help companies formulate products with those crops,” Deshpande says.

Iowa farmer Gaesser, who leads overseas agriculture education and trade missions, says farmers everywhere are hungry for innovation. On his travels, he says, farmers ask him, “What practices will allow me to adapt to extreme events?” He would like to see governments increase spending on research that benefits agriculture and not rely as much on for-profit companies to lead.

Gaesser will keep experimenting to find the best seeds, chemistries, and land management practices to align with the new climate reality. “We’ve always invested in continuous improvements, and we learn from our mistakes,” he says. “We learn as we go how to adapt, adopt, and innovate with new practices.”

Read more about how climate change will impact global food production

"The Asia Food Challenge: Harvesting the Future," from PwC, Rabobank, and Temasek, 2019

Country-Specific Dietary Shifts to Mitigate Climate and Water Crises,” from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, 2019

Smallholders and Family Farmers,” from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2012

"Special Report on Climate Change and Land," from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2019

"The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets 2018: Agricultural Trade, Climate Change and Food Security," from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2018


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