CLEMSON — Variety is more than the spice of life. It could be the key to sustaining life. A commentary in the science journal “Nature” released July 4 calls for a worldwide plan to “mine” the vast biodiversity of plants to grow enough food to feed a world population that will reach nine billion people by midcentury.

Clemson University population genetics researcher Amy Lawton-Rauh is among the scientists in the commentary urging that time is running out to meet food security goals. Food production must double in the next 25 years, yet it took 20 years and 34,000 attempts to produce one new rice variety, according to the authors.

Lawton-Rauh is a co-author of “Agriculture: Feeding the Future” and is one of 49 authors of the commentary from across the globe led by principal writer Susan McCouch of Cornell University. Lawton-Rauh studies rice and amaranth species — perennials considered devastating weeds and sometimes underutilized crops by U.S. farmers, but important foods in other cultures.

Her research focuses on how plant species and populations thrive and interact with each other, sharing and spreading mutations that enable plants to adapt to naturally occurring and manmade environmental stresses, such as drought, changes in salinity or temperature, management practices and herbicides.

The call for support and action to tap into plant biodiversity is the result of extensive discussions that took place at the workshop “Crop Wild Relative Genomics: a Key to Unlocking Diversity” in Asilomar, Calif., in December, said Lawton-Rauh.

About 80 percent of humanity’s food comes from fewer than a dozen plant species out of roughly 300,000 flowering plants.

“The groups and the workshop participants are deeply concerned about the global reliance on such a few crop species,” said Lawton-Rauh. “We focused on the most immediate need to identify and increase scientific resources that will utilize rich biodiversity found in crop wild relatives and under-used crops so that we reduce such risks and improve international food security.”

A global initiative this sweeping will cost money, at least $200 million yearly. Compared to other undertakings, the amount is not that great, the scientists write. Sequencing the human genetic code cost $3 billion while the supercollider in Switzerland cost $9 billion to build and requires about $1 billion per year to run. Making a point about food security and national security, the writers note that a country can spend as much as $181 million for one jet fighter.

Food security and agricultural innovation, ranging from new crops to the Intelligent Farm initiative, are sizable research initiatives at Clemson. The Clemson University Experiment Station is part of a nationwide system of scientists working to improve the quality of life. More than 100 scientists and support staff work on more than 110 projects funded through state, federal and other sources. Researchers have produced more than 100 new varieties of food and fiber crops and 50 patents. Experiment Station research is funded by the state and by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Clemson’s Advanced Plant Technology initiative based at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence focuses on identifying genetic solutions to increase crop yields and quality.

Plant breeding and mindful use of natural and manmade landscapes and technologies need to be high priority, said Lawton-Rauh. New, high-yielding and locally adapted plant species and varieties suited for changing environmental conditions are the seeds of our immediate and future food security, health and ecological stewardship, linking our actions to securing a sustainable planet for generations to come.


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