Researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong are leading ground-breaking research to combat global food shortages by developing stress tolerant soybeans.
Food scarcity is one of the starkest and most critical issues facing humanity. World Bank estimates suggest we need to produce 50% more food by 2050 for a global population of nine billion, but climate change could cut crop yields by more than 25% over the same period.
Agricultural land is shrinking at an unprecedented rate and sharpening a looming hunger crisis which the 2015 World Food Summit concluded already leaves nearly one in nine people experiencing chronic hunger and one in six children in developing countries becoming underweight.
Tackling food scarcity and creating sustainable agriculture is a complex multi-layered task mired in geopolitical and socio-economic challenges as well as the need for global consensus on the causes and solutions for global warming and the disappearance of arable land.
Breaking New Ground
Biodiversity of soybeans.
Science has a leading role to play in redressing the balance and The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is leading an international research project to find new and dependable sources of food in the shape of the humble soybean.
The project is led by Professor LAM Hon-Ming who has pioneered ways to improve the genetic make-up of soybeans so that they can be grown in drought-hit and saline areas and provide a partial solution to world food supply and security issues.
Professor Lam, who heads CUHK’s Centre for Soybean Research, has decoded the genomes of 31 wild and cultivated soybeans and his pioneering work has laid the foundation for research work around the world to unlock the extraordinary potential of the legume as a food of the future.
Professor Lam said: “As scientists, we are eager to work with policymakers, funding bodies and industries to develop new technologies for legume crop improvement in response to climate change, as well as to promote the multi-faceted benefits that grain legumes can bring to society with the aim of increasing their global production and consumption.”
Soybeans are only a bit-part player in modern diets even though they contain more protein than cereals and are a major source of protein meal and vegetable oil, giving them the potential to be a key food of the future.
They have been cultivated in China for around 5,000 years and were hailed by Emperor Shen Nung – the emperor credited with introducing agriculture to ancient China – as one of five ‘sacred plants’, along with rice, wheat, barley and millet. Today, by contrast, China is the world’s biggest importer of soybeans, meaning that boosting the cultivation of this crop will have significant economic benefits as well as food supply implications.
Soybean planting helps nurture a more sustainable form of agriculture as it releases fixed nitrogen into the soil at a rate of up to 100 kg per hectare a year, greatly increasing crop yields and reducing the use of nitrogen fertilisers which cause pollution and emit greenhouse gases.
CUHK has led research on agricultural technology in Hong Kong for nearly 20 years, winning the Hong Kong Government-funded Areas of Excellence (AoE) scheme in 2000 with a project to investigate plant and agricultural biotechnology. Over the past two decades, Professor Lam has built long-term partnerships with soybean growers and researchers in mainland China to test stress tolerant soybeans and plant abandoned land in remote areas with soybeans.
Professor LAM Hon-Ming (1st right) collaborates with South African researchers to grow soybeans in marginal lands.
His collaborative network has been expanded to include international experts from the US, the UK, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, Japan, and South Korea with a common mission to produce a sustainable food source for millions of people.
Recognising the importance of their work, Professor Lam’s multinational team was awarded in 2017 AoE funding of more than HK$81 million (equivalent to US$10.4 million) to continue its research over the coming eight years.
The grant has funded the establishment of a new AoE Centre for Genomic Studies on Plant-Environment Interaction for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security, ensuring that CUHK continues to play a leading role in global plant and agriculture research.
The project reflects CUHK’s overarching commitment to work closely with governments and the private sector to promote technology transfer on innovation to address climate change and promote sustainable agriculture and food security.
“The research team and I hope our work can move related research forward in the future, increasing agricultural production and alleviating the global food shortage problem through the application of basic science.”
Professor LAM Hon-Ming (7th right, 1st row) gathers international experts at a CUHK workshop to formulate a blueprint for legume research.
Our Mission for Research in Environment & Sustainability
Our planet and civilisation face tremendous social, economic and environmental challenges. CUHK aspires to provide global thought leadership in meeting the major challenges of the 21st century by pursuing a proactive and expansive interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research agenda. How can we advance science and technology to make the future of our planet more sustainable? How can we re-engineer our economic and energy structures intelligently to improve energy efficiency and enable shifts to renewable low-carbon energy? How can we create more livable and equitable environment and communities for residents of every age and in all social strata? How can we manage global warming and assure food security by promoting smart living with resilient urban and societal design? Working closely with our knowledge partners in the government and private sectors, CUHK has been seeking and offering innovative solutions to these questions, with the goal of promoting the health and well-being of our planet and its people.