Inside a balmy greenhouse in central Illinois, a boisterous but focused pair of researchers are seeding experimental plants. The scientists moisten the soil and pack it into pots, then carefully tip tiny dark-brown tobacco seeds out of glass vials. In the months that follow, the researchers will move the plants outside into a field and watch whether they grow bigger or faster than usual—a crucial step toward feeding the world of 2050.
These tobacco plants have been engineered at a more fundamental level than typical biotech crops. The way they conduct photosynthesis has been tinkered with so they convert sunlight and carbon dioxide more efficiently into carbohydrates. If scientists do that in food crops, any given plot of land could produce more food, or produce the same amount of food with less water and fertilizer.