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Feeding growing human populations is getting easier, thanks to science

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For decades, we have been told that overpopulation was a growing concern, with ever-increasing numbers of humans across the world putting strain on our natural resources and our ability to feed ourselves. However, it looks like all the doomsday predictions will not come to pass, with slowing population growth and human ingenuity and science changing the future of food production.

A few years ago, Impossible Foods started “growing” meat made from plants. Originally a very expensive food to buy, today an “Impossible burger” costs around double the price of a normal burger. According to reports, the burger patties taste exactly the same as those made from mince, and they boast slightly higher nutritional values due to the fact that they have been engineered to offer the highest volumes of protein and iron possible. Add to that the fact that they do not have the additional hormones that are commonly found in cows, this faux meat product provides a better and healthier alternative.

The company is now looking to replicate steak in its laboratories. If it manages to scale its production of both mince and steak substitutes, the future could very possibly be one where there is affordable meat for everyone with far fewer cows being slaughtered.

Scientists have also found a way to fundamentally change the way plants are farmed. A research team recently published the results of their project to develop a more efficient version of photosynthesis in plants. Plants convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis, but most crops on the planet are plagued by a photosynthetic glitch which they evolved an energy-expensive process called photorespiration to deal with. Unfortunately, photorespiration drastically suppresses the yield potential of the plants.

The problem lies with an enzyme known as rubisco, short for ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase/ oxygenase. Rubisco has a crucial role in the photosynthetic process: It takes inorganic carbon dioxide and transforms it into organic carbon. However, most enzymes can process thousands of molecules in the time it takes rubisco to process two or three, so plants typically make up for this by creating a lot of rubisco. In addition, rubisco occasionally (around 20% of the time) uses oxygen instead of carbon dioxide in its process, forcing the plant to undergo an energy-consuming process known as photorespiration.

Researchers from the University of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service have now engineered plants with a photorespiratory shortcut, making them 40% more productive in real-world conditions.

These engineered plants use new methods of photorespiration by utilising alternate sets of promoters and genes, allowing plants to achieve the same results while expending far less energy. In field studies, they were able to develop plants faster, grow taller, and produce around 40% more biomass.

Although only tested in tobacco, which is an ideal test subject due to its relative genetic simplicity and big leaves, the scientists are hoping to expand testing to crops that make up the staples of many diets around the globe: soybeans, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. Should they achieve the same results, the potential increase in the yield of these crops will ensure far more food for growing populations.

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