Since 2000, the percentage of genetically engineered corn planted in the United States has grown from 25 percent to 92 percent in 2016.
But unless yields increase significantly, experts say the world will not be able to grow enough food to feed itself by 2050, with food shortages anticipated as soon as 2030.
In fact, total production of rice, wheat, soy and corn will have to increase 87 percent from current levels to meet 2050 population estimates, according to research from the University of Illinois.
A larger population will also largely require more space, decreasing the amount of land available for agriculture.
In order to meet these growing food demands across the world, crop yields are going to have to increase – and fast.
So far, genetically modified crops have focused on yield protection – modifying crops to prevent them from dying because of weeds, bugs and lack of water.
Since genetically modified crops were first introduced in the United States, yields have increased 37 percent in corn (introduced in 1996) and 21 percent in soybeans (introduced in 1994).
Still, some argue over the effectiveness of GMO corn and soybeans – as many countries that do not allow genetically engineered crops have also seen similar yield increases.
Researchers like Dr. Stephen Long are working to make sure new genetic modifications boost yields.
Long, a plant biology professor at the University of Illinois, is focusing on increasing plant yields by making photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy – more efficient.
“If you look at the current rate at which we’re improving the yield of our crops, we’re not going to get there, so that means either agriculture spreads onto more land – which is not desirable because a lot of that land is ecologically sensitive – or there are major price rises,” Long told the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in November. “So really, what we’re trying to discover is, are there other ways in which we’re able to increase crop yield?”
According to theoretical computer modeling by Long, plants currently use about 1 percent of the sunlight they receive in photosynthesis, but that could potentially be increased to as large as 10 percent.
In the past year, the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Ef?ciency lab that Long runs has published research proving that boosting certain proteins and decreasing leaf size could provide significant yield boosts by streamlining this process.
The applications from this research would raise the efficiency from about 1 percent to about 1.28 percent, a large increase to be sure, but one that leaves much room for improvement.
One setback, however, is it can take between 15 to 20 years for an idea in Long’s lab to make it into farmers’ fields, meaning yield increases need to be happening now in order to make it into the field by 2030.
“We really need to be addressing this today if this problem evolves in 2030,” Long said in November. “It’ll be too late then to say we need to do something about this.”
Much of Long’s research focuses on more productive plants in parts of the worlds where agriculture is lagging behind and population is projected to grow, specifically sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
“Our primary goal is to really make more productive plants that are ready if food shortages develop and particularly make more productive plants for sub-Saharan Africa because that’s where population growth is predicted to be among the largest in the world and being able to allow farmers that have plants that can feed the population within the region is going to be very important.”
Long isn’t the only researcher focusing on increasing yield to meet growing populations — researchers in the United Kingdom, one of whom serves on the executive committee for RIPE, are currently looking at boosting the yield of wheat about 20 percent by allowing them to absorb more carbon and grow larger.
Multinational seed corn companies are researching this as well.
For example, Monsanto and BASF claim to have seed for genetically engineered corn that would add an extra inch or two to ears, boosting yield up to 12 percent.
Monsanto has been working on ways to increase yield since at least 1999.
Since their introduction in the 1990s, genetically engineered corn seeds have indirectly led to higher yields through built-in protection that comes with insect and pesticide resistance. A surefire way to physically make an ear of corn grow larger, though, has long eluded researchers — until now.
History of genetically engineered corn in Illinois
Since 2000, the percentage of corn planted in Illinois that is genetically engineered has grown from 17 percent to 93 percent in 2016.
In 2000, 13 percent of the corn planted was engineered to be insect-resistant – a type of corn that includes Bt, a protein that kills certain types of insects when it is ingested.
Additionally, 3 percent of corn was herbicide-tolerant, generally Roundup Ready, a type of corn that could withstand being sprayed by Roundup, which would then be used to kill weeds. Just 1 percent of corn was of the stacked variety – or hybrids that were both herbicide-tolerant and insect-tolerant.
In 2016, 87 percent was made up of stacked gene varieties, while just 4 percent was herbicide-tolerant only and 2 percent was insect-resistant only.
The growth happened most significantly from 2005 to 2008, with GE varieties increasing from 36 percent of all corn to 80 percent.
This growth coincided with the popularity of stacked gene varieties of corn. In 2005, just 5 percent of corn was of the stacked variety; in 2008, 52 percent contained both types of traits.
Another large increase of stacked gene varieties happened between 2012 and 2013, with the more advanced hybrids increasing from 53 percent of all corn to 78 percent.