The time is RIPE to transform agriculture and feed the world

  • Date

    Fri 15 Sep 17

Essex is involved in a major research project awarded to the University of Illinois, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The aim of the $45 million project is to increase crop yields for farmers worldwide by improving plant photosynthesis − the process that enables plants to harvest energy from the sun and convert it to products for food and fuel.

The multi-million-dollar project, titled RIPE – Realising Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, has already demonstrated yield increases of 20%. This further funding will enable the researchers to continue their work to address the global food challenge.

Led by the University of Illinois, RIPE brings together an international team of scientists in a joint project to exploit our understanding of the fundamentals of photosynthesis to increase crop yields of the major “C3 crops” such as rice, cassava and beans. With the United Nations today launching a new report on world hunger, this research is particularly pertinent.

Essex has had an international reputation for innovation and excellence in photosynthetic research for more than 30 years. The project leader, Professor Steve Long, from the University of Illinois, began his scientific career at Essex where he was based for more than 20 years.

Announcing the latest funding for RIPE, Professor Long said: “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.

“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 for a growing and increasingly urban world population when food production must also adapt sustainably to a changing climate.”

"With more research focusing on improving this complex problem we can meet the challenge of developing crops to feed the world."
Professor Christine Raines School of Biological Sciences

Professor Christine Raines, who is leading the project at Essex, said: “I am extremely pleased that this major research project - which is hoping to address such an important, global issue - has received further funding.

“This project underlines the international reputation of Essex in the area of photosynthetic research. With more research focusing on improving this complex problem we can meet the challenge of developing crops to feed the world.”

This global project will also involve scientists at the universities of Australian National, Louisiana State, Shanghai and Lancaster. Essex’s part in the project will involve improving photosynthetic carbon fixation – the process where plants convert carbon into sugar using sunlight − to overcome some of the fundamental limitations of photosynthesis.

RIPE and its funders will ensure their high-yielding food crops are globally available and affordable for smallholder farmers to help feed the world’s hungriest and reduce poverty, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

But there is still a long way to go in the project, explained Professor Long. “It takes about 15 years from discovery until crops with these transformative biotechnologies are available for farmers,” he said. “It will therefore be well into the 2030s before such superior crops are seen at scale in farmers’ fields.”