Farmers have always strived to improve the soil’s chemical and physical properties, so that diverse nutrients are available to plants, soil retains more moisture, and plant root growth is facilitated. However, farmers might have overlooked the importance of the thriving diversity of microbes in the ground.
Millions of microorganisms are found in soil and plants, and together they make up a microbial community known as the microbiome. This community, which includes several microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and archaea, can influence crop output and plant growth in both favorable and unfavorable ways. Numerous elements, such as the environment, the physical characteristics of the soil, the availability of nutrients, and the types of plants, impact the composition of a given microbiome.
ROLE OF SOIL MICROBIOME
Up to 98.8% of the food we eat is produced by different types of soils and associated bacteria. As per Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), depending on the terrain, soil erosion might lead to 20–80% agricultural yield losses due to human activities and climate change. Additionally, only 0.25 to 1.5mm of new topsoil (the topmost, organically rich layer of soil, often the top 5 to 10 inches) is produced yearly.
Although soil is often seen primarily as a source of plant nutrients, it is a complex ecosystem. Researchers have discovered that reservoirs of subsurface soil microbiomes may be crucial for the soil formation, the biodegradation of pollutants, and the preservation of groundwater quality.
SOIL MICROBIOME ASSISTS PLANTS IN DEVELOPING TOLERANCE TO DROUGHT AND HEAT
Recent studies have demonstrated that by introducing diverse microbiota, such as fungi or bacteria that colonize other species, into essential food crops, they can be rendered noticeably more stress resistant. An excellent example is Mycorrhizal fungi, which colonize plant roots and aid their soil penetration. In the UK, a certified mycorrhizal product aids in the establishment of seedlings. To improve the plants’ access to moisture and nutrients, the fungi that colonize the seedlings’ root systems send out networks of their underground filaments, known as hyphae. This is a mutually beneficial interaction because the fungi rely on photosynthesis in plants to obtain the sugars they require to develop.
Glomalin, a glycoprotein secreted by fungi to coat their hyphae, can encourage soil particle aggregation, increasing moisture retention. But in addition to improving fundamental aspects of plant biology, the soil microbiome can also affect more subtle features. Field trials of wheat, maize, barley, rice, and soybeans that were produced using seeds coated in fungal spores derived from heat- and salt-resistant plants are currently taking place in various parts of the United States to determine the ideal fungus for each crop and environment.
A DIVERSE SOIL MICROBIOME IS ESSENTIAL FOR SOIL HEALTH AND CROP PRODUCTIVITY
Three essential natural resources are needed for agricultural productivity: light, water, and good soil. To fulfill the rising demand for food requirements worldwide, agriculture approaches that do not rely on increased water usage and fertilizers must be used. A healthy microbiome can support its host by promoting plant growth, improving nutrient utilization, and preventing pests and phytopathogens.
Soils are home to millions of species and billions of individual organisms, ranging from tiny microbes to larger creatures like ants and earthworms. One gram of soil can support thousands of unique species, including entities from all three domains of life. The largest group, in terms of variety and number, is composed of bacterial species. The diversity of a microbial inoculum is now widely regarded as just as significant as its capacity to promote plant growth.
The ability of plants to generate food, fuel, and fiber for an expanding global population depends critically on the condition of the soil. The so-called “phytobiome”—the microbiota associated with soil and plants—may be significantly impacted by agricultural intensification due to high resource consumption and low crop diversification, which can harm essential ecosystem functions.
Through further research and innovation, agricultural productivity can benefit immensely by using the functional potential of the microbiome associated with plants. Scientists are exploring new scientific techniques to monitor the flow of nutrients via a plant, its microbiome, and the soil around it. These tools will open up new possibilities for developing more effective microbial consortia.
Over the past 10,000 years, agriculture has withstood moderate climatic changes due to the diversity in species, varieties, and cultivation techniques. The early farmers chose to cultivate plants that produced big, edible seeds, even without knowledge of genetics. These cultivated plants developed unique varieties as they dispersed over the globe. The enormous range of foods we enjoy is also a result of genetic variation within crops.
HOW NATIONS ARE COMING TOGETHER FOR CONSERVATION AND SUSTAINABLE USE OF PLANT GENETIC RESOURCES
The goals of preservation and open exchange of crop diversity are in the interests of all nations. According to a resolution made by the FAO Conference’s Twenty-second Session, the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was founded in 1983. The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a non-binding agreement designed to encourage harmony in managing plant genetic resources globally, was endorsed by the same resolution.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), also known as International Seed Treaty, or Plant Treaty, was drafted in Madrid in 2001 and went into effect on June 29, 2004. The Treaty mandates that plant genetic resources for food and agriculture must be conserved and used sustainably. The second goal is the equal and fair distribution of gains from using these resources. It also creates a multilateral structure to make access to all crops easier.
A GLOBAL POOL OF GENETIC RESOURCES FOR SHARED ACCESS AND BENEFITS
The Multilateral System, the Treaty’s novel approach to access and benefit sharing, incorporates 64 of our most significant crops into a readily available global pool of genetic resources for potential users in the Treaty’s ratifying nations. These 64 crops represent 80% of the food we obtain from plants.
The Treaty aims to: recognize the significant role that farmers play in the diversity of crops that feed the world; create a global system to give farmers, plant breeders, and scientists access to plant genetic materials; and make sure that recipients share any benefits they derive from using these genetic materials with the countries from which they were originally sourced.
TRADITIONAL CROPS ARE A CRITICAL COMPONENT OF SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION
The Plant Treaty encourages the creation and upkeep of different farming systems and helps to maximize the usage and breeding of all crops. Thousands of indigenous crops have been dormant or unused for many years. Traditional crops can contribute to the development of sustainable food production systems and halt the spread of some pest and disease infestations.
For small-scale or family farmers, several traditional crops may have high economic potential and make excellent revenue crops. For instance, quinoa was a subsistence crop in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador until it gained attention, and production nearly tripled between 1992 and 2010.
SAFEGUARDING INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE OF FARMERS HELPS BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION
Indigenous people around the world play a significant role in protecting agricultural biodiversity. For example, Alder (Alnus nepalensis) has been grown by Khonoma farmers in Nagaland’s “jhum” (shifting cultivation) fields for millennia. It is a nitrogen-fixing tree with various uses for farmers since it keeps the soil fertile. In addition to being used as wood, its leaves are used as fertilizer and fodder.
The Plant Treaty acknowledges the significant contribution farmers have made to the continued advancement of the abundance of plant genetic resources available worldwide. It urges safeguarding the farmers’ traditional knowledge, enhancing their involvement in national decision-making processes, and ensuring they receive a portion of the benefits from utilizing these resources.
Plant genetic resources are crucial because they enable us to adapt crops to fit our needs and solve the difficulties of local, regional, and global food needs. Crop types that are adapted to local ecological conditions can lower the risks associated with climate change. However, there is an urgent demand for adapted germplasm (collection of genes with desirable traits) that necessitates characterization, evaluation, and the availability of resources. The collaboration frameworks provided by the plant treaty can ensure appropriate protection and responsible utilization of crop genetic variety to achieve the goals of human nutrition and food security.
The pandemic and the Ukraine conflict have brought to light massive food shortages that are only expected to worsen. According to the World Bank, the world will need to increase food production by 70% to 100% in the next 50 years due to population growth, changing consumption patterns and climate change.
Genome editing technologies have shown a considerable potential to solve these global concerns in recent years by assisting in the transformation of biological research and creating a significant impact on human health, food security, and environmental sustainability.
Gene editing helps develop specific genetic variants that are indistinguishable from naturally evolved variants in their most basic form. With the popular SDN (Site-Directed Nuclease) approach, scientists can target a specific gene – already present within a plant’s genome – and alter or ‘edit’ it to achieve a desired characteristic, such as pest or heat tolerance, using the latest ‘gene-editing’ tools.
Scientists use SDN1 and SND2 procedures to edit a gene without introducing a foreign DNA. Regulation of these genome-edited plants in various countries is rapidly evolving to keep up with the new technologies and harmonize trade across the world.
COUNTRIES THAT MOVED EARLY TO ADOPT GENE EDITING TECHNOLOGY
Argentina was the first country to announce in 2015 that crops that do not contain foreign DNA would not be regulated under biosafety regulations. Chile, Brazil, and Colombia were quick to follow.
In 2018, the US department of Agriculture (USDA) decided not to impose regulation on new breeding technologies comprising genome editing. Since 2019, Australia has not regulated SDN1 genome editing applications and discussions are underway for SDN2 types of gene editing.
In 2021, Nigeria has issued guidelines for regulation of gene editing wherein if the product does not have a transgene or the transgene has been removed, it is treated similar to a conventionally bred variety, effectively exempting SDN1 and SDN2 out of GM regulation.
As of January 2019, Japan too does not regulate gene edited products differently than traditionally produced types. However, there is a requirement of a premarket consultation where developers are asked to provide information confirming that the product is gene edited and indicate if the developer has any reason to believe it poses a risk to biodiversity.
Other countries like Kenya, Israel, Philippines and China have exempted gene editing from regulatory purview of GMOs and have introduced gene editing guidelines.
HOW THE DIFFERENT REGIONS OF THE WORLD ARE REAPING THE BENEFITS OF GENE EDITING
Plant science and its applications in agriculture are being transformed through genome editing to create more beneficial plant varieties. Several crops or plants have already been recognized as having market-oriented applications. These include major crops like rice, maize, wheat, and potatoes. Many more crops are being studied, like peanuts, lettuce, lemon, cacao, banana, and sugar cane. The majority of these crops have one or more improved traits like agronomic features (height, biomass, etc.), food and feed quality, or biotic stress tolerance.
For example, Brazilian researchers have created a tomato variety that is ten times more productive than the usual crop. In addition, the new fruits have 500 percent more lycopene, a beneficial antioxidant, than store-bought tomatoes. A cross-border research effort has developed a type of rice that is immune to bacterial blight, which is a catastrophic problem in Columbia, where 41 percent of the population is affected by food insecurity.
DEVELOPMENTS IN INDIA
The Government of India introduced gene editing guidelines for evaluating the safety of genome-edited plants to help speed up crop genetic development in India. SDN1 and SDN2 genome-edited crops have been exempted from the strict biosafety requirements that apply to genetically modified (GM) crops.
Crop quality, yield, nutritional enhancement, and adaptation to both abiotic (droughts and floods) and biotic stressors are the traits that can be enhanced through gene-editing. Extreme occurrences driven by climate change, such as the recent heatwave that impacted wheat production in northwest India, necessitate crop features like these. Emerging gene editing technologies aimed at crop enhancement could help farmers adapt to the effects of climate change, as well as help them enhance their income levels and produce quality crops for the consumers.
Traditional methods of plant modification, such as selective breeding and crossbreeding, have been used for nearly 10,000 years. Humans have always made efforts to benefit from new varieties of species by cultivating and adapting crop breeding to regional preferences. The majority of plants that we eat today have been altered by humans, utilizing various methods that enable them to choose properties based on their needs.
Humans have been altering crops through centuries of trial and error
Earlier, crop improvement was done naturally by sowing and choosing different seeds and observing the harvests. Farmers in the past were likely to breed a variant they liked, such as a tomato plant that produced juicier fruit, in order to ensure the trait was passed on.
Through generations of repetition, human beings have controlled evolution through this method of selective breeding. Due to high demand for desirable traits in crops, only a small portion of the several hundred thousand plant species in the world have withstood this rigorous selection process.
The Birth of Modern Plant Genetics
Despite the fact that plant breeding has existed since the dawn of agriculture, contemporary scientific breeding is just around a century old. Gregor Johann Mendel, commonly referred to as the “father of genetics,” is credited as the founder of the field of plant genetics.
Around the 1860s, Mendel laid the groundwork for the dissection of the underlying genetic basis of features. His pea plant studies established many of the laws of heredity, today known as the laws of Mendelian inheritance.
Modern Scientific Plant Breeding fast tracks in 20th Century
Mendel’s work remained unnoticed until 1900, when it received more attention in Europe. Plant breeding significantly impacted by the genetic revolution that occurred after 1900. During this period, work on cross-pollinated crops was characterized by the improvement of landraces (locally adapted plant species) and open-pollinated populations, as well as significant efforts to create inbred lines from these populations.
Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century – scientists were able to make similar alterations in a more specific method and in a shorter amount of time after developing genetic engineering in the 1970s. As a result, the improvement of plants became methodical and devoid of chance.
Advanced Genetic Engineering is helping revolutionize crop breeding
In the last few decades, scientists and plant breeders have begun using “gene splicing” to make far more predictable changes in the DNA of our crops. The resulting plant is referred to as a “genetically modified organism,” or GMO. This terminology has been misled by the naysayers emphasising that earlier selective breeding did not modify plants. However, as mentioned above plant modification was always part of the nature.
GMOs have been transformative for both farmers and consumers. In Bangladesh, where the government developed license-free transgenic brinjal (eggplant) in 2014 using technology donated by major biotechnology companies, farmers reduced pesticide spraying from 80 times a season to under five, yields increased by 20%, and there was a huge cut in medical care for applicators (mostly women and children).
The most recent advancement in this continuous line of genetic modification is genome editing (or gene editing), which allows small and precise changes to enhance desirable traits (nutrition, etc.) and disable unfavorable traits in crops. CRISPR-Cas9, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and CRISPR-associated Protein 9, is the most well-known of these.
Scientists and product developers are collaborating to create communication frameworks in order to engage the public in science communication and education in a holistic manner. Lately, scientific communicators, scientists, academicians are coming forward to simplify the scientific jargons and provide fact based data and evidence to highlight the benefits of new breeding innovations for farmers and consumers. Genetic engineering has demonstrated massive potential to address many important issues, such as decreasing the use of crop protection products, conserving energy, natural resources along with enhancing socio economic status of farmers. The positive reinforcement can be seen from the easing out of regulatory approvals of gene editing guidelines globally. It means that consumers, policy makers understand the benefits that new breeding innovations can bring to the farmers and the country alike. It will now enable wider adoption of various beneficial genetic applications in health, agriculture, and food.
Plant health management is a comprehensive set of practices and tools required to achieve a crop’s attainable yield, which is determined by various factors. Water availability, growing degree days of the growing season, available sunshine etc. Therefore, effective plant health management is critical for increasing the productivity and sustainability of agri-food ecosystems.
IMPACT OF PLANT HEALTH ON GLOBAL ECONOMY
Farming communities, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, continue to face plant pests and diseases due to limited investment in R&D, knowledge gap, low labour availability among others. These threats cause 10–40% losses in major food crops each year, costing the global economy $220 billion.
According to recent studies, the highest losses due to pests and diseases are associated with food-deficit regions with rapidly growing populations.
LIMITED KNOWLEDGE OF TECH TO DETECT PLANT HEALTH
Plant health problems pose a constant challenge for farmers and extension workers. Pests and diseases, as well as abiotic factors such as low soil fertility, cause regular and often significant losses in crop production and quality. A variety of causes and symptoms with multiple possible origins makes diagnosis difficult.
Diagnostic capability, global-scale surveillance data, risk forecasting, and rapid response and management systems for major pests and diseases remain in short supply. Smallholders and marginalized communities are ill-equipped to respond to biotic threats due to lack of knowledge and access to climate-smart control options.
To protect plant health and productivity in our agricultural and natural ecosystems, tools for early detection and identification of plant pests and diseases are required. Technical support services are frequently inadequate, and extension workers struggle to reach all farmers. Choosing the best management options necessitates better tools and resources.
PLANT HEALTH CLINICS (PHCs)
Plant health clinics (PHCs) are a practical way for plant health specialists to collaborate with extension workers to provide farmers with advice on how to manage a variety of plant health problems.
Plant clinics at research institutes have laboratory facilities for identifying pests and pathogens, and some provide management advice through extension intermediaries. To serve farmers directly, extension-based PHCs are held in public areas nearby where farmers live and work.
PRECISION FARMING THROUGH CROP CARE CLINICS
A startup company in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh is offering precision farming advisory to citrus farmers. To collect data and provide advice to farmers, a combination of cloud services, drones, IoT devices, mobile apps, and AI/ML algorithms are used.
Following the farmer’s onboarding, a soil test report with 12 different vitals is generated, followed by a Drone survey and a comprehensive Digital Tree Health Audit (DTHA) in which every tree in the field is tagged. Every tree is scouted for 52 different Citrus problems, and data is captured in the form of images and videos in the Mobile App. This data is then analyzed by our Advisors (Plant doctors), and relevant advice is sent to the farmer via mobile app and SMS.
NEW ADVANCES IN PLANT HEALTH MONITORING
Wearable sensors can now monitor plant visual signs, such as shriveling or browning leaves, which typically do not appear until the majority of the water has been depleted. The electronic system wirelessly transmits data to a smartphone app, allowing for remote management of drought stress in gardens and crops.
This technology has improved on previous plant monitors, where metal electrodes were previously less accurate due to the hair on a plant’s skin falling off. Monitoring water content on leaves can also provide information on pests and toxic agent exposure, making monitoring the entire plant possible rather than just the water content.
With new technological advancements, many more plant health applications are possible. For example, because plant wearable sensors can provide reliable data indoors, the devices can be used in outdoor gardens and crops to determine when plants require watering, potentially saving resources and increasing yields.
To continually improve plant health management systems, we need predictive surveillance and monitoring systems, robust disease management practices, and effective training of food production professionals. Enhancing our systems for protecting plant, animal, environmental, and human health will help us to protect plant health and strengthen food security.