This is a guest blogpost by Youssef Mansour, a young researcher currently interning at Nature Middle East.
The agriculture sector needs to double food production by 2050 to meet growing global populations – a tremendous feat considering the challenges posed by climate change, water shortage and how the increase in farming land is not catching up with demand. That’s why scientists are up to their ears looking for ways to sustainably increase production of crops capable of withstanding different environmental stresses.
At the BioVision Alexandria 2014 meeting last week, a group of leading agriculture scientists showcased new trends in agriculture that attempt to address the rising food needs of the next 100 years.
Classic approaches aimed at producing stress-resistant crops such as breeding programmes and genetic engineering “have not yielded the results that people had hoped over the years” says Rusty Rodriguez, CEO of Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies, a biotechnology company focused on agriculture research. These approaches are reductionist and focus on plants only, ignoring the fact that all plant and animal life partner with microorganisms for mutual benefit, he says.
Rodriguez introduced a new trend named symbiogenics, a technology that harnesses the impact that fungi that inhabit plants internally have on their ability to tolerate stresses.
In an experiment back in 2002, he found that symbiotic plants with a particular fungus close to a hot spring at Yellowstone National Park could tolerate temperatures up to 65°C. Neither the fungus nor the plant could withstand such high temperatures alone, but they developed a heat resistance when they partner up.
The Middle East is one of the most water insecure regions in the world, with water availability per person averaging 1,200m3 per person per year – less than a fifth of the global availability per person. Additionally, it is expected to heat up faster than most other regions, with an expected 6°C increase by the end of the century over the Levant region. The region faces numerous challenges for food security, such as the lack of investment in agricultural research and development, inadequate policies and the lack of social and economic stability in the region, points out Mahmoud Solh, director-general of ICARDA.
“We have seen people working on very important things but separate from one another. It seems to me that the problems are so severe [in the Middle East], that this is the perfect location to look at the convergence of these technologies,” says Rodriguez. “We [can] use engineering to get the plant to talk to us. Then we use microorganisms, maybe some genetic engineering, maybe some synthetic biology to modulate what’s going on inside the plant, so when it tells us something is wrong, we know how to fix it.”
A major goal of modern agriculture is to be able to bring across the symbiotic nitrogen fixing bacteria associated with legumes to cereals such as maize, wheat and rice.
This would optimize the use of nitrogen for increasing crop production while decreasing the exposure of the environment and humans to synthetic fertilizers.
Experiments conducted by Edward Cocking, director of the Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation at Nottingham University, have shown that introducing a low number of a non-nodulating nitrogen fixing bacteria called Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus has been found to significantly inhabit the root meristem and exhibited “progressive systemic plant colonization”.
The bacteria, which localizes in vesicles in the cytoplasm of plant roots and shoots, were found to express nitrogenase genes that produce enzymes responsible for formation of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen gas. Presently, work is geared towards determining how far these non-nodular bacteria can fix nitrogen in cereals. Field studies run under various environmental conditions would then show how much synthetic nitrogen fertilizers could be lifted.
Separately, a different approach that was pieced together in the 1980s in Madagascar by Henri de Laulanié increases rice productivity by modifying farming techniques to decrease agrochemical inputs and increase yield from the same genetic variants, explains Norman Uphoff, professor of Government and International Agriculture at Cornell University
The System of rice intensification (SRI) is emerging as a new paradigm for sustainable intensification of various crops, and many farmers in developing countries are already spearheading a movement to apply the same practices to other crops.
In the Middle East, “there is no silver bullet that will be able to solve the problems of dry areas,” Solh says. He believes an integration of strategies that optimizes the use of natural resources and utilizes genetically-modified crops, as well as the implementation of policies that promote sustainable agriculture, is the way forward.