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Preparatory action to Boost Global Crop Yield for Food & Nutrition Security and fueling a Bioeconomy

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CropBooster-P (Preparatory action to Boost Global Crop Yield for Food & Nutrition Security and fueling a Bioeconomy)

Reporting period: 2018-11-01 to 2020-04-30

Increasing global crop productivity will be central in meeting some of the greatest challenges facing human kind: How will we sustainably feed 9.7 billion people by 2050, while realizing the required transition from a fossil economy towards a bio-economy in order to mitigate and possibly reverse the effects of global climate change? Additionally, how can we provide new crops cultivars adapted to the constraints imposed across vast areas by climate change? More than a doubling of global crop productivity is expected to be required to produce enough plant biomass to achieve food and nutrition security, as well as to meet the demands of a future bioeconomy and a competitive land use.
Any increase in crop production must be achieved without any loss of nutritional quality to achieve full Food Security and to satisfy the nutritional aspects of a healthy diet. In addition, future agriculture will require crops that combine sustainability, the efficient use of scarce resources like mineral nutrients and water, the preservation of the Earth’s biodiversity, and a high resilience to adverse climate conditions. In order to meet these challenging demands, our current crop plants will have to be re-designed and a “future proof” profiling is urgently needed.
With a multitude of possible crops and genetic changes, combined with multiple environmental changes, policy and societal challenges, progress could be mired in a seemingly impenetrable complexity. CropBooster-P will address this by identifying priorities and opportunities to adapting and boosting productivity to the environmental and societal changes. Our objective is to produce a Roadmap, which will be quantitative evaluation of the most promising practical approaches to be enacted from 2021 to achieve a sustainable food supply into the future.
When aiming to develop “future-proof crop plants”, it is of course of utmost importance to consider how this future will look! Climate change, new biotechnologies and changing consumer habits and farming practices are just a few of the examples which illustrate the dramatic changes that agriculture in the EU will undergo before the year 2050. But how exactly will the challenges, trends and uncertainties develop? As no one can predict the future, the CropBooster-P team did the next best thing: creating a set of diverse learning scenarios that allows us to discuss what might happen and what this would mean for the development of our Roadmap. Over the course of the CropBooster-P Scenario Analysis, the project team explored 45 trends and a number of uncertainties that are related to the future of agriculture in Europe. The process resulted in four learning scenarios: “Plantovation”, “Your Food, Your Health, Your choice”, “Foodmergency” and “RejecTech”.

Simultaneously, a database, the “Toolbox”, of scientific and technical options to improve plant yield, quality and sustainability was developed. This toolbox now contains over 800 literature references depicting the state-of-the-art in improving our key plant traits via either plant breeding or modern biotechnology. The toolbox is organized in a simple flat file format, allowing both easy searching of the toolbox and future expansion of the toolbox itself.

Also as part of the assessment of the technical options for crop yield improvement, modelling was done for the key denominator of crop yield, which is plant photosynthesis. The models show the future perspectives of increasing crop yield by increasing photosynthesis for a number of European key crops, at a number of different geographic locations, under a number of different scenarios for future climate change in Europe. Even already with a modest improvements of single photosynthetic traits, simulated average wheat yield can increase across Europe up to 35% under future climate scenarios.

In a next phase of the project the effects are explored that EU adoption of the cropboosting options identified in the first stage would have on society, the environment, and economy. This will be achieved via a mix of expert elicitation and literature synthesis. The elicitation work was somewhat hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The planned face-to-face Expert Workshops to assess the economic, social and environmental effects that the implementation of different options to improve crops will cause had to be cancelled at short notice. In response, we have robustly adapted the approach, organising and running a number of Internet-based mini-focus group sessions with food/bio-economy system stakeholders to collect the required information else way. Currently, most of these mini focus group sessions have been successfully held and the first analysis of the results is underway. We also supplemented this with an online survey where >300 stakeholder’s views were collated.

By analysing over 25000 scientific publications by European researchers who work in the fields of crop yield improvement, sustainability or nutritional quality, a number of interaction networks could be constructed clearly showing the landscape of European plant research institutions and cooperation between these institutions, both at the level of individual researchers as well as at the level of the institutions themselves.

Finally, also already some work was carried out to draft the “modus operandi” of a foreseen future pan-European research consortium that will execute the research program on the Roadmap. Initial documents were drafted stipulating how such a consortium would deal with matters pertaining intellectual property, dissemination of results and communication with society
The overall goal of CropBooster-P is to draft a Roadmap showing the route towards future-proofing the crops for European agriculture. This Roadmap will bring closer Europe’s strategic and applied plant science communities and will create economic opportunities for our bioeconomy at all levels of its operation. It will also represent a European boost to global food security. Insecurity of food supplies might not directly threaten a wealthy region like Europe, but the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, amongst other things, the vulnerability of the global trade and transportation systems. The steady supply of food towards the European market should no longer be taken for granted. In addition, a lack of food and nutritional security has corrosive global effects, driving political instability, insurrection and migration.
Increased agricultural productivity will also make easier the expansion of the non-food bioeconomy. Greater primary production as part of the yield-increase equation will also allow more carbon to be allocated to the soil-carbon pool. This will improve resource-use efficiency and serve to sequester carbon dioxide in the soil carbon pool. We see, therefore, that our Roadmap will not only layout a technical plan for crop yield improvement but will a stepping stone to a reinvigorated rural economy driving a new food and non-food bioeconomy.

In the first half of its existence, the project has already made significant progress beyond the state-of-the-art, most notably by developing a set of future learning scenarios, by compiling a toolbox with scientific options to improve our crops according to the current scientific state of the art, and by carrying-out a large-scale mapping exercise of the European plant science landscape at large. These results are already publicly available, or will be made available soon.