Tag Archives: irrigation

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.

References

  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
Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Sustainability Strategies for the Food Industry

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Sustainability is a word that you’ll hear a lot these days, especially as industries try to become more eco-friendly. The food industry has been lagging behind in the world of sustainability, and in order to keep up with national and international food demands, it is difficult to implement the kind of change that is necessary to make the world a little greener. However, that doesn’t mean that food companies shouldn’t try. The following are some sustainability strategies that might be easier to implement in the food industry.

Water Conservation

field irrigation
Field irrigation (Wikipedia commons image)

While the majority of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, only about 3% of that water is drinkable—and 2 of that 3% is frozen in the planet’s glaciers and ice caps. This is why water conservation is so important. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), roughly 39% of fresh water used in the United States is used to irrigate crops.

Switching from flood irrigation with sprinklers to drip irrigation can reduce water usage.

Wastewater reuse is also a new technique that is gaining traction in the food industry. While it isn‘t practical in all situations due to the technology needed to remove chemicals and impurities from the wastewater, it can help reduce water waste and water use in the food industry. Simply reviewing water usage and switching to procedures that are less water-intensive can save a company money and reduce its overall water usage.

Natural Pest Control

Pesticides and fertilizers are among some of the most dangerous chemicals in the food industry. For largescale operations, however, they are necessary to ensure a large and healthy harvest. Some companies, such as Kemin Industries, are shunning these typical processes in favor of more sustainable options.

“Our mission at Kemin is to improve the quality of life for more than half the world’s population, and we believe sustainability plays an important role in our work,” said Dr. Chris Nelson, president and CEO of Kemin Industries. “Our FORTIUM line of rosemary-extract-based ingredients uses Kemin-grown rosemary for maximum effectiveness against color and flavor degradation. Kemin is the only rosemary supplier that is certified SCS Sustainably Grown, and we’re one of the world’s largest growers of vertically integrated rosemary.”

Vertical integration doesn’t have anything to do with how the rosemary is grown. In the agriculture industry, it means Kemin owns the entire supply chain for its rosemary, from field to processing to distribution.

“We use botanicals—spearmint, oregano, marigold and potato, in addition to rosemary—in our other products as well,” continued Nelson. “As an ingredient manufacturer, we understand the value of good suppliers. When the planet is supplying us with the ingredients we use in our products, it’s important to us that we are responsible in our growing practices.”

Sustainable Distribution

Distribution is one of the biggest problems when it comes to creating eco-friendly and sustainable supply chains. Upwards of 70% of the products in the United States are transported by truck, and each of those trucks generates CO2 and greenhouse gases.

There are two plans of attack for sustainability in food distribution: Reducing the distance food needs to travel, and upgrading trucks to use greener fuel options like biodiesel or electricity, such as the ones Tesla is offering.

Reducing the emissions created by tractor-trailers could help make the entire process a bit more sustainable, although it would require a large investment to upgrade the distribution process.

Back to Their Roots

It’s only in recent decades that agriculture has started being sustainable in an effort to keep up with the demands of the consumer. By going back to our roots and focusing on farming techniques that promote things like soil health—by rotating crops instead of using artificial fertilizers—and lowering water use and pollution, agriculture can become sustainable once again.

Farming, sustainability
Creative Commons image

Modern agricultural techniques are detrimental, both to the environment and to the people who work there. These methods ensure we have enough food to supply consumers, but they lead to soil depletion and groundwater contamination. In addition to this, it can also lead to the degradation of rural communities that would normally be centered on farm work. That’s because corporate farms focus on quotas and large harvests without the community angle.

These commercial farms also cost more to run, and many have poor conditions for farmworkers because of the harsh chemicals used to kill pests and fertilize depleted topsoil.

Farm numbers have dropped since the end of World War II, with corporate farms taking the place of smaller family farms. While the number of farms has dropped, the remaining farms have increased in size. The average farm in 1875 was roughly 150 acres, and there were more than 4 million of them. Today, less than half that number remains, but the average size of the farms has increased to more than 450 acres.

Sustainability is a popular buzzword right now, but it’s a lot more important than most people believe. Switching to sustainable practices, whether that means changing production, distribution or anything in between, will help ensure the food industry can keep fresh, healthy food on our table for decades to come without damaging the environment. Sustainability is something that should be adopted by every industry, especially agriculture.

Water

Water Contamination Threat Potentially Everywhere

By Maria Fontanazza
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Water

With water consumption increasing on every continent, the agricultural industry has an important issue in front of them: Will there continue to be enough water of suitable quality for agricultural production for the foreseeable future? Daniel Snow, director of the Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory at University of Nebraska, posed this question at the IAFP annual meeting earlier this month.

Worldwide, it is estimated that the availability of freshwater (annual per capita) is just 1700 m3. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, when this figure drops below 1000 m3 it puts pressure on not only on the economy but also on human health.

The amount of freshwater available for food production is limited (less than 3% of the world’s water is fresh). Further complicating the matter is the fact that this water comes from many different sources, and emerging contaminants are potentially everywhere. “We don’t really understand the effect [of these contaminants] on the environment or on human health,” said Snow. “We know the compounds occur in the water and likely occur in the food supply, but we don’t really understand the implications.”

According to Snow, there is very little regulation around water used for irrigation. Top concerns surrounding emerging contaminants include:

  • Water reuse. Recycled wastewater contains traces of the following contaminants, which accumulate over time:
    • Xenobiotics (organic compounds)
    • Inorganics
    • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria/germs. Up to 90% of some of the antibiotics excreted are not metabolized by animals and humans
    • Endocrine disrupters (steroids—natural and artificial in running water)
    • Pharmaceuticals (both human and veterinary)
  • Arsenic (namely related to rice production).  The element is not only found in soil in Asia but also in soil in certain parts of the United States
  • Co-occurrence of nitrate and uranium in ground water. There is growing evidence that uranium is being mobilized in water and one study has shown that uranium is readily taken up in food crops

It’s not all doom and gloom, said Snow. The upside to the issue: “We know enough now that we can start to understand the system and hopefully control the contaminants when producing food,” he said. The larger concern is determining which emerging contaminants pose the most significant problem.