According to the United Nations, the world’s population will increase by 34 percent by the middle of the century. Global food production needs to meet this increase. A recent study of soybeans
, one of the major food crops and sources of protein, may be one step in helping solve the global food crisis though the power of computers.
The U.N. predicts food production must increase by 70 percent to meet the needs of a wealthier and more urban world population. The World Food Prize Foundation president and former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Kenneth Quinn, calls it the greatest challenge in history.
“There’s going to be another 2 billion people on our planet between now and 2050 and how are we going to produce enough food for them to eat?” asked Quinn.
One solution is science. The study led by Darren Drewry of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is looking for a super soybean. A computer model can create a plant that can be more productive and reflects more light back into space to reduce global warming's effects, while using less water.
One plant with all these traits may be hard to find, but, with data from real soybean plants, a computer can redesign a plant with the traits through the arrangement of the leaves, their density and angle to the sun.
“That’s the real critical thing that we found here that some of these goals that we might have intuitively thought were mutually exclusive that we can’t increase productivity without increasing water use," said Drewry. "We find that there are changes to the architecture of modern soybean cultivars that can be made to help us improve on many of these goals.”
The next step is to take the computer’s model plant and test it in the field by artificial manipulation, says University of Illinois professor Stephen Long, speaking via Skype.
“One of the things the modeling predicted is that there’s too much leaf area so we’re actually removing leaves as the plant's growing to get a lower leaf area," said Long. "We’re also artificially modifying the angle of the leaves as well to reflect what the model predicted.”
If the plants in the field behave as predicted, scientists will look for soybean lines with specific traits and crossbreed them into the computer’s super soybean. Long said it is important to find solutions to the predicted global food shortage before it happens, because even if the super soybean can become reality, it will be another 20 years before the crop can appear in a farmer's field.