Tag Archives: farming

Salim Al Babili, Ph.D., KAUST
Food Genomics

To Boost Crop Resilience, We Need to Read Our Plants’ Genetic Codes

By Salim Al Babili, Ph.D.
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Salim Al Babili, Ph.D., KAUST

In just 30 years, worldwide food production will need to nearly double to feed the projected population of 9 billion people. Challenges to achieving food security for the future include increasing pressures of global warming and shifting climatic belts, a lack of viable agricultural land, and the substantial burdens on freshwater resources. With the United Nations reporting nearly one billion people facing food insecurity today, our work must begin now.

A key research area to meet this crisis is in developing crops resilient enough to grow in a depleting environment. That’s why we need to search for ways to improve crop resilience, boost plant stress resistance and combat emerging diseases. Researchers around the world, including many of my colleagues at Saudi Arabia-based King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), are exploring latest genome editing technologies to develop enough nutritious, high-quality food to feed the world’s growing population.1

Where We’ve Been, and Where We Need to Go

Farmers have been genetically selecting crop plants for thousands of years, choosing superior-looking plants (based on their appearance or phenotype) for breeding. From the early 20th century, following breakthroughs in understanding of genetic inheritance, plant breeders have deliberately cross-bred crop cultivars to make improvements. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that Dr. Norman Borlaug’s development of dwarf wheat saved a billion lives from starvation.

However, this phenotypic selection is time-consuming and often expensive—obstacles that today’s global environment and economy don’t have the luxury of withstanding.

Because phenotypic selection relies on traits that are already present within the crop’s genome, it misses the opportunity to introduce resilient features that may not be native to the plant. Features like salt tolerance for saltwater irrigation or disease resistance to protect against infections could yield far larger harvests to feed more people. This is why we need to explore genome editing methods like CRISPR, made popular in fighting human diseases, to understand its uses for agriculture.

What Our Research Shows

We can break down these issues into the specific challenges crops face. For instance, salt stress can have a huge impact on plant performance, ultimately affecting overall crop yields. An excess of salt can impede water uptake, reduce nutrient absorption and result in cellular imbalances in plant tissues. Plants have a systemic response to salt stress ranging from sensing and signaling to metabolic regulation. However, these responses differ widely within and between species, and so pinpointing associated genes and alleles is incredibly complex.2

Researchers must also disentangle other factors influencing genetic traits, such as local climate and different cultivation practices.

Genome-wide association studies, commonly used to scan genomes for genetic variants associated with specific traits, will help to determine the genes and mutations responsible for individual plant responses.3 Additionally, technology like drone-mounted cameras could capture and scan large areas of plants to measure their characteristics, reducing the time that manual phenotyping requires. All of these steps can help us systematically increase crops’ resilience to salt.

Real-world Examples

“Quinoa was the staple ‘Mother Grain’ that fueled the ancient Andean civilizations, but the crop was marginalized when the Spanish arrived in South America and has only recently been revived as a new crop of global interest,” says Mark Tester, a professor of plant science at KAUST and a colleague of mine at the Center for Desert Agriculture (CDA). “This means quinoa has never been fully domesticated or bred to its full potential even though it provides a more balanced source of nutrients for humans than cereals.”

In order to further understand how quinoa grows, matures and produces seeds, the KAUST team combined several methods, including cutting-edge sequencing technologies and genetic mapping, to piece together full chromosomes of C. quinoa. The resulting genome is the highest-quality quinoa sequence to date, and it is producing information about the plant’s traits and growth mechanisms.4,5

The accumulation of certain compounds in quinoa produces naturally bitter-tasting seeds. By pinpointing and inhibiting the genes that control the production of these compounds, we could produce a sweeter and more desirable crop to feed the world.

And so, complexity of science in food security increases when we consider that different threats affect different parts of the world. Another example is Striga, a parasitic purple witchweed, which threatens food security across sub-Saharan Africa due to its invasive spread. Scientists, including my team, are focused on expanding methods to protect the production of pearl millet, an essential food crop in Africa and India, through hormone-based strategies for cleansing soils infested with Striga.6

Other scientists with noteworthy work in the area of crop resilience include that of KAUST researchers Simon Krattinger, Rod Wing, Ikram Blilou and Heribert Hirt; with work spanning from leaf rust resistance in barley to global date fruit production.

Looking Ahead

Magdy Mahfouz, an associate professor of bioengineering at KAUST and another CDA colleague, is looking to accelerate and expand the scope of next-generation plant genome engineering, with a specific focus on crops and plant responses to abiotic stresses. His team recently developed a CRISPR platform that allows them to efficiently engineer traits of agricultural value across diverse crop species. Their primary goal is to breed crops that perform well under climate-related stresses.

“We also want to unlock the potential of wild plants, and we are working on CRISPR-guided domestication of wild plants that are tolerant of hostile environments, including arid regions and saline soils,” says Mahfouz.

As climate change and population growth drastically alters our approach to farming, no singular tool may meet the urgent need of feeding the world on its own. By employing a variety of scientific and agricultural approaches, we can make our crops more resilient, their cultivation more efficient, and their yield more plentiful for stomachs in need worldwide. Just as technology guided Dr. Bourlag to feed an entire population, technology will be the key to a food secure 21st century.


  1. Zaidi, SS. et al. (2019). New plant breeding technologies for food security. Science. 363:1390-91.
  2. Morton, M. et al. (2018). Salt stress under the scalpel – dissecting the genetics of salt tolerance. Plant J. 2018;97:148-63.
  3. Al-Tamimi, N. et al. (2016). Salinity tolerance loci revealed in rice using high-throughput non-invasive phenotyping. Nature Communicat. 7:13342.
  4. Jarvis, D.E., et.al. (2017). The genome of Chenopodium quinoa. Nature. 542:307-12.
  5. Saade. S., et. al. (2016). Yield-related salinity tolerance traits identified in a nested association mapping (NAM) population of wild barley. Sci Reports. 6:32586.
  6. Kountche, B.A., et.al. (2019). Suicidal germination as a control strategy for Striga hermonthica (Benth.) in smallholder farms of sub‐Saharan Africa. Plants, People, Planet. 1: 107– 118. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.32
Bob Bentley, Crisp
FST Soapbox

Predictions: Planning for Increased Demand with Limited Supply

By Bob Bentley
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Bob Bentley, Crisp

We are seeing the beginning of a limited supply of certain products as containment of the COVID-19 pandemic keeps manufacturers, processing plants, and other suppliers in global stasis. But what does that mean for these manufacturers and other members of the supply chain? It means continued planning of master resources such as demand management, sales and operations planning and production scheduling, but with a greater focus on efficiency.

This process of master resource planning results in a detailed blueprint for manufacturing products to meet anticipated demand, accounting for various constraints such as limited supply of raw materials and purchase parts.

So what should manufacturers do if they run into serious shortages of raw materials or purchase parts? What can retailers do to cover operating expenses if they don’t have enough products to sell? We’ll take a look at these anticipated complications and possible methods for solving them.

Limited Supply

The current COVID-19 crisis has led to mandatory business closures that have already caused a shortage of supply. So far, we’ve gotten by with inventories that had already been sitting in various places up and down supply chains prior to the shutdowns, not just on warehouse and retail store shelves. Once all inventories within supply chains are depleted, we will start to notice more stockouts.

Some businesses can endure long-term production cessations without stockouts. For example, manufacturers in critical industries such as pharmaceuticals have a policy of stockpiling inventory in case of unforeseen events. Most businesses, however, cannot afford to miss months of production time because the lean manufacturing principles they adhere to include keeping minimal inventory.

For instance, automobile manufacturers and retailers do not hold excess inventory due to the expected annual product line changes from the previous year’s models, which are typically sold at a large profit reduction at the turn of the year. Clothing and other fashion-related businesses also keep inventory minimal due to a yearly change in styles.

Another source of upcoming shortages will be the sell-off of supplier facilities due to the downturn in revenue caused by emergency closures. Food is a particularly interesting case. Farmers are reconstructing the way their supply chains work to better serve their new target consumers—grocery retail. Some farmers may run into issues with transporting livestock or may need to repurpose crops that are nearing their harvest. Many of those that are pushing to endure and come out of the pandemic disruption with minimal casualties are starting to get creative by creating small farmers’ markets (pop-ups) or marketing directly to the consumer via direct subscription boxes.

It will take some time to re-establish farms, manufacturing plants, and other suppliers who were hit hardest during the months without revenue. However, refocusing on demand planning and forecasting could aid in spurring a regeneration of these industries.

Demand Management

Demand management is the first of three steps taken during the master resources planning process. Demand management includes demand forecasting, distribution channel planning and customer demand management.

Both suppliers and retailers need to know what demand they can expect, especially during uncertain times. After COVID-19, consumer demand will be high, supplies will be limited, and accurate demand forecasting will be especially important to getting businesses back on their feet.

Inaccurate forecasting will cause waste when businesses overestimate future demand for items that have a short shelf life. For instance, a grocery store that overestimates how much produce they will be able to sell within a certain time frame will end up throwing some of that produce away due to spoilage.

Consumer behavior during a crisis can complicate demand forecasting, though. In an earlier phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, worried customers over-purchased toilet paper and paper towels. This caused a shortage for everyone else, and the demand for those items was much higher than anticipated/forecasted. More recently, the same buyers bought up meat when they heard about the disruption in the food supply chain, and they expected the prices for meat to go up. Demand spikes like these cause lost sales for stores that don’t anticipate them.

Demand forecasting will remain tricky in the short-term for both suppliers and retailers whenever a retailer re-opens to the public with the imposed 25% capacity constraint. Overhead expenses will likely remain relatively the same, but 25% of the normal revenue may not cover expenses. Whether a full 25% of a retailer’s former customer base would return during a pandemic is also an unknown factor.

Companies will see high demand when the world opens their doors for business. The most efficient way for companies to plan during these times is by utilizing high-performance, demand forecasting software that will offer the best information available to deal with volatile demands, given the various known and predicted factors.

Sales and Operations Planning

After demand management is performed, manufacturers go through a sales and operations planning process that integrates sourcing, manufacturing, sales, marketing and financial plans, and resource planning. This process results in the creation of an approved production plan (at the product family level), purchase plan, sales plan and backlog plan that satisfies the anticipated level of demand within supply constraints.

In the early days following the end of the pandemic, some manufacturers won’t have the initial supply to meet the high demand for their goods. Some may find contingencies for creating their goods and products, while others may run into supplier issues when it comes to recreating their products and goods post-closure.

Getting manufacturers back up to speed will depend on building up the supplies of raw materials and purchase parts. Sometimes out-of-the-box solutions such as part designs can eliminate the need for some unavailable purchase parts and dependency on some suppliers. Additionally, accurate demand planning information will enable manufacturers to accommodate their retailer customers as much as possible without overpromising incoming goods.

Master Scheduling

In the master scheduling phase, the production and purchasing plans are taken from the family level into a specific product level. This process involves a computer repeatedly simulating production and purchasing as planned during the S & OP step until optimal bills of materials are created. This process includes testing of the plans against constraints of critical resources (rough-cut capacity planning) until a master production schedule is derived.

Fortunately for the retailers, manufacturers who have done accurate demand planning and have taken their production plans through the master scheduling stage will know the maximum number of goods they can ensure without overreaching.


The current COVID-19 pandemic required many business closures to help contain the spread of the virus. As a result, many consumer goods are in limited supply. When the crisis ends, the demand may very well overtake the supply. Businesses will need to practice patience while supplies build back up. Thinking outside the box, using accurate demand forecasting, preventing waste, and executing good demand planning will be crucial steps in reinstating a synergistic supply chain model.

AgPulse, Mist Labs

The Internet of Things Leverages Data for Smarter Farming

By Maria Fontanazza
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AgPulse, Mist Labs

Water consumption is a significant concern in the agricultural industry. As farmers face the challenges of long-lasting droughts and high prices for water use, finding ways to conserve water without threatening crops is a high priority.

Mist Labs has developed a technology platform called AgPulse that allows farmers to track their plants and irrigation systems. The technology consists of a set of wireless devices that can be deployed throughout the farm (or more than one location). It tracks data such as irrigation flow information, how much water is going into plants, and how much sun is hitting the plants. The information is fed through a web dashboard in real time, and allows the tracking of historical information for analysis of trends.

Matt Kresse, CEO of Mist Labs, sat down with Food Safety Tech to discuss the AgPulse platform, which also recently won the Proto Labs Cool Idea! Award.

Food Safety Tech: You mentioned that Mist Labs is targeting selling to farmers mainly in the California area. Are you targeting farms of a specific size?

Matt Kresse: Our target initially is large farms, which happened to be first folks with whom we were connected. It might have something to do with the fact that very large farms often have researchers as part of their staff who are most familiar with how to make use of the new data sources that we’re providing. They have also challenges, such as high-level managers who are overseeing many farms, sometimes multiple farms not even in California but worldwide. We’re addressing [a problem they face]—they’re giving prescriptions for how much watering their fields should be getting in the weeks and months ahead. And then there are actual field workers who are doing the surprisingly manual process of opening and closing valves by hand for irrigating blocks on their field, and they’re recording everything on pieces of paper and reporting back. We’re finding that when they do small scale measurements using [instruments] similar to a flow meter and moisture sensors, there’s a large amount of discrepancies between how much they’re prescribing to put on the field and h w much they’re actually putting on the field—it’s anywhere from a 10%–50% discrepancy. That’s’ a problem and can lead to water waste and negative crop outcomes. Particularly with types of crops like fruit and nut crops, if you over-water, it can ruin a crop due to altering the flavor in an unideal way.

Food Safety Tech: Using AgPulse, what’s the technology differentiator versus other current methods?

Kresse: There are not a lot of competitors doing specifically what we’re doing. At best, farms will have a flow meter solution installed on the water main—a large water pipe about 3–4 inches—and that provides water for a very large area or the entire farm. But that doesn’t give you a good sense for how much the individual rows/plants are getting—and that’s what’s really important for the farmer. Our first device can be installed directly in the row, so it connects with the micro-irrigation tubing (it’s very compact). There are other flow meters sized so they can connect with a half-inch or three-quarter inch drip tube, but ours is a really low-profile design so that it can be easily connected with tubing. It avoids a problem when [farmers are] trying to bulk their flow meters in individual rows, [which can cause them to] get wrapped up with the harvesting machinery, and get ripped out, ruining the devices at the end of every year.

"Our low-profile devices are designed to go very close to the plant itself. It’s a long-range, wireless device, so it’s a minimal network deployment—you just put the devices in, and we have one hub that you can place pretty much anywhere in your field. The flow meters send the data to one hub—it’s a very simple deployment in that sense."
“Our low-profile devices are designed to go very close to the plant itself. It’s a long-range, wireless device, so it’s a minimal network deployment—you just put the devices in, and we have one hub that you can place pretty much anywhere in your field. The flow meters send the data to one hub—it’s a very simple deployment in that sense,” says Matt Kresse.

The other thing that no one else is doing: The device has a solar panel to track the solar energy that’s hitting the plant. The growers are placing the device under the canopies of the plant. We’re doing mostly trees and vines. Farmers are very interested in tracking the canopies of the plant over course of the season. This will impact how much they choose to water, when to fertilize, and when to harvest. Messing this up can really impact quality of crop.

Our device is permanently underneath the canopy and sees how much sun information is captured in real time. As the canopy expands and the sun moves over the field over the course of the day, we can track that sun-to-shade ratio. The shade ratio will get bigger as the canopy expands. It gives a nice metric to compare March to July, for example. This is a brand new [feature], and something growers are as excited about as we are—having the real-time flow information.

“The device combines providing data on irrigation and tracking the plant growth. It’s not just a flow meter.” –Matt Kresse, CEO, Mist Labs

Food Safety Tech: How does the use of this technology simplify the entire process for growers?

Kresse: Growers we deal with are sophisticated and are trying to apply deficit irrigation strategies: You water more during an early part of the season and then later in the season, so you cut water at a specific time—it’s what they call applying water stress. That [process] pulls in nutrients from the canopy to the fruit and improves the quality of the fruit by a lot. But doing this requires a precise understanding of how much water is in the plant and being applied to the plant, and how much water stress it’s under. Right now, it’s a manual process, both the watering and the reporting of the watering, so any discrepancies impacts their ability to apply deficit irrigation strategies successfully.

We’re shining a light on this whole process and making it very simple, and reporting out is completely automated for them, so this will greatly simplify the ability to successfully implement deficit irrigation and it’s also in a scalable fashion. If they want to do in another field, it’s just a matter of installing a couple more devices, and the installation process takes minutes.

We can also alert the farmer to leakages or blockages, because we’re tracking the watering over long periods of time. When there’s a sudden increase in the flow rate (or a decrease) that means something most likely happened to the watering structure itself. Leaks can often affect more than 1000 acres—a leak in the corner of your farm could go unnoticed for a while,  which might ruin that portion of the crop and is wasting a lot water. [Combine] that with tracking the actual health of the watering structure and the ability to employ deficit irrigation across the entire farm, and we’re comfortable saying that farmers can see about a 20% water savings and improvement of crop yields by around 10%.