Plant science research is an arsenal to fight hunger and hidden hunger
The United Nations General Assembly, in the year 2015, approved and adopted a set of 17 goals termed as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a resolution of “Transforming our world”. The agenda behind these goals is reducing poverty, economic inequality and improving health and nutrition.
Hunger and malnutrition are the two major challenges before us to attain sustainable development. Globally an estimated 821 million people are undernourished and 145 million children under the age 5 are stunted. About 2 billion people are deficient in one or the other micronutrients. These figures are alarming and cautioning us to focus our attention on eradicating hunger and malnutrition. It was wisely said that “An empty stomach triggers off wisdom” and “The health of the society is only a reflection of the health of the individual”. Hence I strongly believe that a nation’s overall development is only possible when its citizens are healthy.
Agriculture has been feeding the world and continues to play its role, surviving the burgeoning population pressure, climatic fluctuations, and shrinking farmlands. Plant science research has contributed tremendously to boosting global food grain productivity. The very first example was the deployment of Sd1 and Rht genes to develop semidwarf varieties of rice and wheat respectively that led to the achievement of self-sufficiency by many countries including Mexico, India, Pakistan, and Philippines. The high yielding input responsive semidwarf varieties revolutionized world food grain production and resulted in the so-called Green Revolution. The legacy is continued with the release of several improved varieties across the crops harboring desirable traits like resistance to various biotic and abiotic stresses, photo-insensitivity, early maturity, etc. Thanks to the advancements in the genomic technologies that sustained the success story. The marker-assisted backcross breeding led to the deployment of the SUB1 gene in the background of mega rice varieties making them tolerant to submergence due to flash floods. The genetically engineered crops like Bt cotton led to the drastic reduction in pesticide usage, significant improvement in the cotton yields and resulted in positive health impacts on the cotton farmers due to less exposure to pesticides. The transgenic Golden Rice has the potential to alleviate vitamin A deficiency and other related disorders.
Large scale genomic resources developed in recent years including the whole genome sequence assembly of almost 264 plant species coupled with advancements in omics technologies like transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, ionomics, etc would hasten gene identification and functional characterization. Genomic technologies can be leveraged to characterize the large collections of plant genetic resources being conserved in the gene banks and channelize the desirable alleles into improved cultivars to enhance genetic diversity. High throughput phenotyping technologies improve the speed and precision of phenotyping. Speed breeding technologies can help shorten the generation time required for the development of new cultivars. The site-directed mutagenesis techniques like CRISPR/cas9 can create novel alleles, re-create existing natural alleles and also delete the deleterious alleles.
Hence plant science research is central in addressing the issues of hunger and malnutrition and achieving sustainable development goals. There is also a need to enhance funding in plant science research and encourage the young generation to pursue plant science.
(Authored by Haritha Bollinedi, Scientist, Division of Genetics, Indian Agricultural research Institute (IARI))