We don’t just eat to stay alive; food decides our way of life and daily lifestyle. However, how we now produce food can impact the environment by polluting land and water, hastening climate change and the biodiversity, and decreasing the productivity of our farms and fields, over time. Global food production must become sustainable in the coming years to help agricultural communities flourish and facilitate the restoration of natural resources.
When we look for solutions to strengthen the global food supply chain while dealing with the deteriorating consequences of climate change, regenerative smart agriculture is one of the most practical answers to boost food production to feed the expanding world population. A sustainable food system can take us beyond simple sustainability and accelerate positive growth that benefits the millions of farmers and other food producers across the globe.
REDUCING NATURAL RESOURCE USE FOR SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTION
Regenerative smart agriculture focuses on reducing the resources needed for food production, principally soil and water, but not exclusively, to ensure sustainable production. It considers water bodies, rivers, and lakes to improve the health of the farm’s environment. The health of the soil is a primary focus area, but other factors, such as fertilizer and water management, are also taken into account.
Smasrt farming creates healthier soils, producing food of superior quality and nutrient density, improving rather than degrading the environment, and ultimately resulting in productive farms, economies, and communities. Farming methods like conservation tillage, crop rotation, pasture cropping, and mobile animal shelters enrich topsoil and increase food production.
WHY IS SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE ESSENTIAL?
The loss of the planet’s biodiversity, and degradation of fertile soils threaten our continued existence. Chemical pollution, decarbonization, and desertification contribute to soil deterioration rates. These factors have the potential to seriously harm not only public health but also the quality of the food supply, leading to malnutrition. We need to re-carbonize and safeguard the soils to have enough arable topsoil to feed ourselves. An essential part of regenerative farming consists of diversifying species above and below the earth to boost biodiversity. For instance, planting a million trees on farms and in landscapes, such as fruit and shade trees in cocoa-growing regions, aids in the restoration of crucial ecosystems.
ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY
Regenerative tools, including no/low till, crop rotation and diversity, cover crops, and lowering farm inputs all contribute towards sustainability. Precision agriculture components like deeper analytics to guide seed selection, inputs and pest management offer advantages from a conservation viewpoint over a reasonable period. Today, we have access to innovative, and ever-more-precise methods. A new area of aided breeding has opened up due to decoded genomes and methods for analytics and regulating genes that drive particular plant features. This can include transgenic (foreign gene modification/insertion) and intragenic (internal gene alteration).
Food production has impacted the environment and it is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of all freshwater. On the other hand, it is also responsible for the livelihood of a substantial part of the world’s population.
Smart agricultural techniques combined with emerging technologies can help us effectively deal with these challenges. Changing to a food system would allow us to produce food both on land and at sea in ways that are compatible with the environment. Together, we can turn the challenge of securing global food security into our most incredible opportunity: we can build sustainable agriculture systems that foster growth for people, businesses, and the environment.
In addition to traditional solutions, new and developing technologies will undoubtedly be used in the future of food and agriculture. While creating a food supply for a rapidly expanding population, we can restore habitats, protect clean drinking water, increase biodiversity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing innovative strategies in collaboration with producers.
The future of food: The regenerative imperative (newhope.com)
India has made significant progress toward being a self-sufficient food producer after being a net food importer in the 1960s. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that India is the second-biggest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnuts, vegetables, and fruits. It is the largest producer of milk and pulses and a significant producer of plantation crops, spices, fish, poultry and livestock. It ranks first or second among several non-food crops, including cotton and jute. This success has also created a crisis of abundance as the food supply chain infrastructure needs significant strengthening to manage excess production.
HOW MUCH FOOD IS LOST BETWEEN HARVEST AND RETAIL?
Any food that is discarded, burned, or otherwise disposed of after harvesting along the food supply chain is referred to as food loss. This loss excludes the retail level and any waste that is applied to other productive uses, such as the production of feed or seed. To highlight the different terms, while “food waste” occurs after the food reaches the retailer or customer, “food loss” occurs during or shortly after harvest
As per an estimate, during or immediately after harvest, globally up to $600 billion worth of food is lost on farms or in their vicinity. FAO sets India’s food loss and waste at 40%, whereas the government-owned Food Corporation of India (FCI) puts it at over 15%.
Comprehensive studies on agri-losses have been undertaken in India by the Central Institute of Post Harvest Engineering and Technology, Ludhiana (CIPHET), a unit of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Using production data from 2012–13 at 2014 wholesale prices, CIPHET estimated the annual value of harvest and post-harvest losses of primary agricultural produce at the national level at Rs. 92,651 Crore.
COLD STORAGE CHALLENGES
In a diverse country like India, food is produced in one region and then shipped all over the nation. For instance, grains are grown in Maharashtra and transported nearly throughout India. The government plays a significant role, purchasing around 75 million tonnes of the 300 million tonnes of grains produced in India through the MSP mechanism. A significant quantity of these grains is stored in traditional godowns or outside in the open shade leading to substantial losses to the exchequer.
India had 8,186 cold storage facilities with a combined 374 lakh million tonnes capacity as of September 2020. Bengal and Uttar Pradesh account for roughly 65% of this. Potatoes use about 75% of the cold storage space. According to estimates, India loses between 30 and 40 percent of its fruits and vegetables yearly due to inadequate cold storage facilities. This is significant as we are striving for nutritional security, especially for the vulnerable sections of the population.
IMPROVING INDIA’S POST-HARVEST SUPPLY CHAIN INFRASTRUCTURE
India’s hot and humid weather generally makes maintaining cold storage facilities more challenging. The problems magnify with extended heat waves and a rise in the frequency of extreme weather phenomena, including floods, droughts, and cyclones. We need a complete upgradation of storage facilities (especially in rural areas) that can minimize power and water usage while reducing post-harvest losses. One way to achieve this is by expanding access to finance for climate resilient technology adoption for storage facilities.
The Ministry of Food Processing Industries has been implementing several schemes to reduce losses in agricultural produce’s supply chain and improve the existing food processing infrastructure. These schemes include Mega Food Parks, Integrated Cold Chain, Value Addition and Preservation Infrastructure, and Setting Up/Modernization of Abattoirs.
Recent innovations and modern solutions could help overcome food insecurity, enhance access to nutrition and ensure long-term food sector sustainability. All stakeholders must collaborate to encourage private sector innovations that can share the burden of improving agricultural resilience and complement public sector projects.
For example, Cooling-as-a-service is a global innovation where local cold-chain technology providers own, maintain, and operate cooling systems in a decentralized manner. In India, this innovation has been initiated through the Your Virtual Cold Chain Assistant program, conceptualized to minimize post-harvest losses by decentralizing cold storage facilities.
The Indian government introduced the Agriculture Infra Fund (AIF) on July 8, 2020, as a long-term debt financing plan for developing post-harvest management infrastructure and community farm assets. The government has initiated an action plan to invest about Rs. 9,200 crore over the following four to five years to facilitate the construction of wheat silos with 11-mt capacity using the PPP mode at 249 locations throughout the nation. These are significant steps on road to minimizing food loss.
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.
Plant health is essential for both human and animal life and is an important component of the complex connections between humans, animals, and the environment. Plants are the primary source of nourishment for animals and provide approximately 80% of the food consumed by humans. However, our plants are in more danger than ever before, and it is critical to raise awareness about the importance of plant health and the steps that must be taken to reduce the dangers of plant pests and diseases. A greater understanding of how to control the spread of invasive pests will help us strengthen the global food supply chain.
THREATS TO THE HEALTH OF PLANTS
According to the FAO, forty per cent of global crops are lost each year owing to pests and diseases. This could become a more challenging scenario, given our rapidly growing human population, challenges of climate change, and vulnerability of a long food supply chain.
Plant health issues can be caused by a variety of circumstances. Based on whether they are living or non-living, these elements can be separated into two groups. Environmental stress or cultural care are examples of non-living disease agents, sometimes known as abiotic agents. Microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria are examples of living disease agents, often known as biotic agents or plant pathogens.
Measures to prevent or treat infections, such as the use of pesticides, if not used in appropriate amounts and manner may be overused and influence on the health of agricultural workers and customers, as well as make pests resistant to the chemical.
HOW PLANTS NATURALLY PROTECT THEMSELVES
Viruses, bacteria, and fungi can make plants sick, just like any other organism. Insects, herbivores, and omnivores prey on them. Plants have been reasonably successful in surviving the combined attack of such a diverse group of species. While they are unable to fight or flee from a predator, they have evolved extremely effective ways of reacting.
Plants have walls around their cells that protect them from diseases and can produce chemicals that repel pathogens or attract defensive agents. They’ve developed an immune system that, when infected, can cause cell death, isolating infected areas.
EMERGENCE OF NEW PLANT DISEASES
Plant health is under threat as a result of an increase in the number and frequency of new and reemerging pests as a result of intensification, globalization, trade development, and climate change. We are already witnessing the spread of novel diseases, which are, in some cases, the result of climatic change that favors the spread of pathogens or their carriers.
New fungal diseases are wreaking havoc on cereal crops and banana trees, resulting in significant production losses. Bacteria such as Xylella fastidiosa damages Mediterranean fruit trees such as olive and almond trees, wreaking havoc with the livelihood of the farmers and tradesmen.
ALTERNATIVE PLANT HEALTH SYSTEMS
Farmers are well aware of the importance of cultivating plants in order to ensure their optimal health. Increasing plant resistance to diseases is the top issue for farmers in agriculture. They often use a variety of remedies to safeguard their crops, but these compounds can cause environmental or human health issues in some circumstances. Reduction of crop protection products is a top priority in many parts of the world.
Alternative plant protection strategies have been developed, such as integrated pest control or the use of transgenic cultivars that can combat insects. One of the most effective ways is to introduce resistant traits through selective breeding. This is also being done with the help of modern genome editing techniques.
Plant health is crucial in the face of global concerns, including climate change, among many other challenges. Competition between crop resistance and disease adaptation has always existed between plants and pathogens. It is our responsibility to use the greatest research available to better understand these interesting biological processes and to give breeders and farmers the tools to help them grow healthier plants in their fields. We need to focus on building robust plant ecosystems to safeguard the environment and biodiversity, as well as to improve livelihoods and help create sustainable growth.
Drought in agriculture leads to severe economic losses for the farmers and the country. This is now being intensified due to climate change and the frequency of drought is increasing each year. There are reports highlighting drought as one of the key factors that is contributing to the continuing rise in the number of hungry people and jeopardising the food security of countries.
Sustainable management of natural resources is an integral part of growing healthy crops. Since the economic liberalisation and introduction of new crop varieties, farmers have been using water in abundance without adopting sustainable practices and it has resulted in the lowering ground water table and degradation of the health of soil. India is an agrarian society and majority of the farmers are small holders. This indicates that they are not equipped to deal with losses posed by unpredictable weather and they do not have the financial capabilities to get access to technologies that can help them adopt a different strategy.
There are several drought tolerant hybrid varieties in crops in India like rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, pearl millet, barley, chickpea, groundnut, soybean, sugarcane, cotton and jute. Recently, 35 new crop varieties were dedicated by the Prime Minister of India to the nation,of which several are drought tolerance varieties. While farmers are adopting these varieties, they have not been able to achieve optimum production level.
Another challenge involves accelerating the breeding of improved varieties, as it takes scientists 10 or more years to commercialise the product. In this period, the scientist after breeding the variety, tests the seed to accurately characterise the traits involved and the tests are carried out in multiple locations. With the rapidly changing environment, 10 years is a long phase to predict the desired results, further, not many farmers are aware of these varieties that are available in the market.
Given the several roadblocks in developing and realising the benefits of a new heat tolerant variety, adoption of innovative technologies to overcome the challenges is critical. Gene editing can rapidly decrease the breeding time to two years and introduce beneficial traits at the same time. It allows breeders to work within elite plant’s own gene pool to try to reach the same endpoint as they would through more traditionally breeding methods–but with greater precision and efficiency.
The use of gene editing to develop new plant varieties isa promising and growing field. Gene editing applications that lead to DNA changes that could also occur in nature or from more traditional breeding methods particularly are of most interest. Because of this, genetic changes resulting from gene editing cannot reliably be differentiated from the same changes that can occur by traditional breeding or spontaneously in nature.
The primary benefit from gene editing is that it is flexible and can provide more choices to the breeders. Because of its ease of implementation, small entities, public sector institutions, start-ups, smaller companies can develop innovative products without concerning themselves on upfront investment. Therefore,staple crops which are water guzzlers like rice, maize, soybean, wheat, beans need improvement through gene editing. Many countries have paved a path of predictability and acceptance in gene editing guidelines which has encouraged scientists, developers, institutions, start-ups to evaluate and develop crops that can be made healthier, cheaper and which complements the environment to sustain the crop and food security. We believe India too will realise the opportunity that gene editing has provided to the world and make the nation and farmers at one with other countries.