Relocating coffee areas, along with forestation and forest conservation, to higher altitudes to cope with climate change could increase Ethiopia‘s coffee farming area fourfold, a study predicts.
The study, published in Nature last month (19 June), suggests that moving Ethiopian coffee fields to higher ground because of climate change could increase resilience by substantially increasing the country’s suitable production area.
Justin Moat, spatial analyst at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and lead author of the study, says that currently coffee farming is mainly confined to altitudes between 1200 and 2200 metres.
“A critical factor in the suitability of coffee farming is the interaction between rainfall and temperature.”
“In general, coffee’s niche will move uphill to keep to optimal temperature,“ he tells SciDev.Net. “Much work would be needed to achieve this if planning starts now.”
According to Moat, up to 60 per cent of the country‘s current production area could become unsuitable before the end of the century.
Ethiopia, he says, is the world’s 5th largest coffee producer. The crop provides a quarter of export earnings, and approximately 15 million Ethiopians engage in coffee farming and production.
The study‘s results were based on computer modelling and simulations. “We determined coffee-preferred climate (niche) using a huge amount of data collected on the ground, including historic observations, overlaid on climate maps,” explains Moat.
They projected this niche into the future using climate models and scenarios, which revealed that all the models were in general agreement. They then combined this with satellite imagery to come up with the present-day forest coffee area, and the area projected in the future.
Higher altitudes are forecast to become more suitable for coffee while lower altitudes are projected to become less suitable, according to the study.
“A critical factor in the suitability of coffee farming is the interaction between rainfall and temperature; higher temperatures could be tolerated if there was an increase in rainfall,” Moat notes.
He adds that regardless of interventions, one of the country‘s best known coffee-growing regions — Harar, in eastern Ethiopia — is likely to disappear before the end of the century.
Shem Wandiga, a professor of chemistry at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Climate Change Adaptation, Kenya, says that although the study cannot predict with full certainty, it holds important messages for policymakers.
“Start planning to expand coffee growing areas to higher elevation, he suggests. “The expansion should be coupled with forestation of the areas.“
Researchers and policymakers should also map out the human, social and ecological conditions that may allow such expansion, according to Wandiga. Also, farmers should slowly substitute coffee with other plants that may bring income.
William Ndegwa, Kitui County director at the Kenya Meteorological Department, says the model used in the research is a powerful tool for linking climate variables with biological parameters.
“This is a very interesting [study] with deep insights into the characteristics of the impacts of climate change on crop production,” he notes.
Every morning I slice a banana onto my breakfast cereal.
And I am not alone.
Every person in the UK eats, on average, 100 bananas per year.
Bananas are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals like potassium and magnesium. Their high carbohydrate and potassium content makes them a favorite snack for professional sports players; the sugar provides energy and the potassium protects the players from muscle fatigue. Every year, around 5000 kg of bananas are consumed by tennis players at Wimbledon.
But bananas are not only delicious snacks and handy energy kicks. For around 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, bananas are staple crops vital for food security. Staple crops are those foods that constitute the dominant portion of a standard diet and supply the major daily calorie intake. In the UK, the staple crop is wheat. We eat wheat-based products for breakfast (toast, cereals), lunch (sandwich), and dinner (pasta, pizza, beer).
In Uganda, bananas are staple crops. Every Ugandan eats 240 kg bananas per year. That is around 7–8 bananas per day. Ugandans do not only eat the sweet dessert banana that we know; in the East African countries such as Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, the East African Highland banana, called Matooke, is the preferred banana for cooking. Highland bananas are large and starchy, and are harvested green. They can be cooked, fried, boiled, or even brewed into beer, so have very similar uses wheat in the UK.
In West Africa and many Middle and South American countries, another cooking banana, the plantain, is cooked and fried as a staple crop.
In terms of production, the sweet dessert banana we buy in supermarkets is still the most popular. This banana variety is called Cavendish and makes up 47% of the world’s banana production, followed by Highland bananas (24%) and plantains (17%). Last year, I visited Uganda and I managed to combine the top three banana cultivars in one dish: cooked and mashed Matooke, a fried plantain and a local sweet dessert banana!
Three types of banana in a single dish in Uganda.
Another important banana cultivar is the sweet dessert banana cultivar Gros Michel, which constitutes 12% of the global production. Gros Michel used to be the most popular banana cultivar worldwide until an epidemic of Fusarium wilt disease devastated the banana export plantations in the so-called “banana republics” in Middle America (Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica) in the 1950s.
Fusarium wilt disease is caused by the soil-borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (FOC). The fungus infects the roots of the banana plants and grows up through the water-conducting, vascular system of the plant. Eventually, this blocks the water transport of the plant and the banana plants start wilting before they can set fruits.
Fusarium Wilt symptoms
The Fusarium wilt epidemic in Middle America marked the rise of the Cavendish, the only cultivar that could be grown on soils infested with FOC. The fact that they are also the highest yielding banana cultivar quickly made Cavendish the most popular banana variety, both for export and for local consumption.
Currently, Fusarium wilt is once again the biggest threat to worldwide banana production. In the 1990s, a new race of Fusarium wilt – called Tropical Race 4 (TR4) – occurred in Cavendish plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Since then, TR4 has spread to the neighboring countries (Taiwan, the Philippines, China, and Australia), but also to distant locations such as Pakistan, Oman, Jordan, and Mozambique.
Current presence of Fusarium wilt Tropical Race 4. Affected countries are colored in red.
In Mozambique, the losses incurred by TR4 amounted to USD 7.5 million within just two years. Other countries suffer even more; TR4 causes annual economic losses of around USD 14 million in Malaysia, USD 121 million in Indonesia, and in Taiwan the annual losses amount to a whopping USD 253 million.
TR4 is not only diminishing harvests. It also raises the price of production, because producers have to implement expensive preventative measures and treatments of affected plantations. These preventive measures and treatments are part of the discussion at The World Banana Forum (WBF). The WBF is a permanent platform for all stakeholders of the banana supply chain, and is housed by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). In December 2013, the WBF created a special taskforce to deal with the threat posed by TR4.
Despite its massive impact on banana production, we know very little about the pathogen that is causing Fusarium wilt disease. We don’t know how it spreads, why the new TR4 is so aggressive, or how we can stop it.
Fusarium Wilt symptoms in the discolored banana corm.
Breeding bananas is incredibly tedious, because edible cultivars are sterile and do not produce seeds. I am therefore exploring other ways to engineer resistance in banana against Fusarium wilt. As a scientist in the 2Blades group at The Sainsbury Laboratory, I am investigating how we can transfer resistance genes from other crop species into banana and, more recently, I have been investigating bacteria that are able to inhibit the growth and sporulation of F. oxysporum. These biologicals would be a fast and cost-effective way of preventing or even curing Fusarium wilt disease.
[RIO DE JANEIRO] A genetically modified (GM) cane variety that can kill the sugarcane borer (Diatraea saccharalis) has been approved in Brazil, to the delight of some scientists and the dismay of others, who say it may threaten Brazilian biodiversity.
Brazil is the second country, after Indonesia, to approve the commercial cultivation of GM sugarcane. The approval was announced by the Brazilian National Biosafety Technical Commission (CTNBio) on June 8.
Sugarcane borer is one of the main pests of the sugarcane fields of South-Central Brazil, causing losses of approximately US$1.5 billion per year.
“Breeding programmes could not produce plants resistant to this pest, and the existing chemical controls are both not effective and severely damaging to the environment,” says Adriana Hemerly, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in an interview with SciDev.Net.
“Studies conducted outside Brazil prove that protein from genetically modified organisms harms non-target insects, soil fauna and microorganisms.”
“Therefore, the [GM variety] is a biotechnological tool that helps solve a problem that other technologies could not, and its commercial application will certainly have a positive impact on the productivity of sugarcane in the country.”
Jesus Aparecido Ferro, a member of CTNBio and professor at the Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho State University, believes the move followed a thorough debate that began in December 2015 — that was when the Canavieira Technology Center (Sugarcane Research Center) asked for approval to commercially cultivate the GM sugarcane variety.
“The data does not provide evidence that the cane variety has a potential to harm the environment or human or animal health,” Ferro told SciDev.Net.
To develop the variety, scientists inserted the gene for a toxin [Cry] from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the sugarcane genome, so it could produce its own insecticide against some insects’ larvae.
This is a technology that “has been in use for 20 years and is very safe”, says Aníbal Eugênio Vercesi, another member of the CTNBio, and a professor at the State University of Campinas.
But Valério De Patta Pillar, also a member of the CTNBio and a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, points to deficiencies in environmental risk assessment studies for the GM variety — and the absence of assessments of how consuming it might affect humans and animals.
According to Pillar, there is a lack of data about the frequency with which it breeds with wild varieties. Data is also missing on issues such as the techniques used to create the GM variety and the effects of its widespread use.
Rogério Magalhães, an environmental analyst at Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment, also expressed concern about the approval of the commercial transgenic cane.
“I understand that studies related to the impacts that genetically modified sugarcane might have on Brazilian biodiversity were not done by the company that owns the technology,” said Magalhães in an interview with SciDev.Net. This is very important because Brazil’s climate, species, and soils differ from locations where studies might have taken place, he explained.
Among the risks that Magalhães identified is contamination of the GM variety’s wild relatives. “The wild relative, when contaminated with transgenic sugarcane, will have a competitive advantage over other uncontaminated individuals, as it will exhibit resistance to insect-plague that others will not have,” he explained.
Another risk that Magalhães warns about is damage to biodiversity. “Studies conducted outside Brazil prove that Cry protein from genetically modified organisms harms non-target insects, soil fauna and microorganisms.”
Magalhães added that some pests have already developed resistance to the Bt Cry protein, prompting farmers to apply agrochemicals that are harmful to the environment and human health.
A man stacks sugarcane at the Ver-o-Peso (Check the Weight) market in Belem.
Currently, it is common for producers to raise sucrose levels in sugar cane by applying artificial growth regulators or chemical ripeners. This inhibits flowering, which in turn prolongs harvest and milling periods.
One of these growth regulators, ethephon, is used to manage agricultural, horticultural and forestry crops around the world. It is widely used to manipulate and stimulate the maturation of sugarcane as it contains ethylene, which is released to the plant on spraying.
Ethylene, considered a ripening hormone in plants, contributes to increasing the storage of sucrose in sugar cane.
“Although we knew ethylene helps increase the amount of sugar in the cane, it was not clear how the synthesis and action of this hormone affected the maturation of the plant,” said Marcelo Menossi, professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and coordinator of the project, which is supported by the Brazilian research foundation FAPESP.
To study how ethylene acts on sugarcane, the researchers sprayed ethephon and an ethylene inhibitor, aminoethoxyvinylglycine (AVG), on sugar cane before it began to mature.
After spraying both compounds, they quantified sucrose levels in tissue samples from the leaves and stem of the cane. They did this five days after application and again 32 days later, on harvest.
Those plants treated with the ethephon ripener had 60 per cent more sucrose in the upper and middle internodes at the time of harvest, while the plants treated with the AVG inhibitor had a sucrose content that was lower by 42 per cent.
The researchers were then able to identify genes that respond to the action of ethylene during ripening of the sugar cane. They also successfully identified the genes involved in regulating sucrose metabolism, as well as how the hormone acts on sucrose accumulation sites in the plant.
Based on the findings, the team has proposed a molecular model of how ethylene interacts with other hormones.
“Knowing which genes or ripeners make it possible for the plant to increase the accumulation of sucrose will allow us to make genetic improvements in sugarcane and develop varieties that over-express these genes, without the need to apply ethylene, for example,” explained Menossi.
This research could also help with spotting the most productive sugar cane, as some varieties that do not respond well to hormones, he added. “It will be possible to identify those [varieties] that best express these genes and facilitate the ripening action.”
[SYDNEY] The increasing use of groundwater for irrigation poses a major threat to global food security and could lead to unaffordable prices of staple foods. From 2000 to 2010, the amount of non-renewable groundwater used for irrigation increased by a quarter, according to an article published in Nature on March 30. During the same period China had doubled its groundwater use.
The article finds that 11 per cent of groundwater extraction for irrigation is linked to agricultural trade.
“In some regions, for example in Central California or North-West India, there is not enough precipitation or surface water available to grow crops like maize or rice and so farmers also use water from the underground to irrigate,” the article says.
“When a country imports US maize grown with this non-renewable water, it virtually imports non-renewable groundwater.”
Carole Dalin, Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College, London
The article focused on cases where underground reservoirs or aquifers, are overused. “When a country imports US maize grown with this non-renewable water, it virtually imports non-renewable groundwater,” Carole Dalin, lead author and senior research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College, London, tells SciDev.Net.
Crops such as rice, wheat, cotton, maize, sugar crops and soybeans are most reliant on this unsustainable water use, according to the article. It lists countries in the Middle East and North Africa as well as China, India, Mexico, Pakistan and the US as most at risk.
“Pakistan and India have been locally most affected due to groundwater depletion and exporting agricultural products grown with non-sustainable groundwater. Iran is both exporting and importing and The Philippines is importing from Pakistan, which is non-sustainable. China is importing a lot from India. Japan and Indonesia are importing, mainly from the US,” says Yoshihide Wada, co-author of the report and deputy director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis’s Water Programme, Laxenburg, Austria.
Agriculture is the leading user of groundwater, accounting for more than 80 to 90 per cent of withdrawals in irrigation-intense countries like India, Pakistan and Iran, according to the report.
The researchers say efforts to improve water use efficiency and develop monitoring and regulation need to be prioritised. Governments must invest in better irrigation infrastructure such as sprinkler irrigation and introduce new cultivar or crop rotation to help producers minimise water use.
Wada suggests creating awareness by putting water labels, along the lines of food labels, “showing how much water is used domestically and internationally in produce and whether these water amounts are from sustainable or non-sustainable sources”.
Andrew Western, professor of hydrology and water resources at the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering, suggests enforceable water entitlement systems and caps on extraction. “In recent decades, water reform in Australia has led to water having a clear economic value made explicit by a water market. This has enabled shifts in water use to cope with short-term climate fluctuations and has also driven a trend of increasing water productivity,” he says.
For Africa to end chronic hunger, governments must invest in sustainable water supplies.
The fields are bare under the scorching sun and temperatures rise with every passing week. Any crops the extreme temperatures haven’t destroyed, the insect pests have, and for many farmers, there is nothing they can do. Now, news about hunger across Africa makes mass media headlines daily.
Globally, hunger levels are at their highest. In fact, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, over 70 million people across 45 countries will require food emergency assistance in 2017, with Africa being home to three of the four countries deemed to face a critical risk of famine: Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. African governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and humanitarian relief agencies, including the United Nations World Food Programme, continue to launch short-term solutions such as food relief supplies to avert the situation. Kenya, for example, is handing cash transfers and food relief to its affected citizens. The UN World Food Programme is also distributing food to drought-stricken Somalia. And in Zambia, the government is employing every tool including its military to combat insect pest infestation.
But why are we here? What happened? Why is there such a large drought?
Reasons for chronic hunger
Many African smallholder farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture, and because last year’s rains were inadequate, many farmers never harvested any crops.
Indeed, failed rains across parts of the Horn of Africa have led to the current drought that is affecting Somalia, south-eastern Ethiopia and northern and eastern Kenya.
Then, even in the countries where adequate rains fell, many of the farmers had to farm on depleted soils, and consequently, the yields were lower. Degraded soils and dependence on rain-fed agriculture coupled with planting the wrong crop varieties are some of the fundamental problems that lead to poor harvests and then to hunger. Worsening the situation is the unpredictable climate. Given these fundamental and basic issues that fuel the hunger cycle in Africa, it naturally makes sense to tackle them.
It is not rocket science. Farming goes hand-in-hand with water. There can be no farming without it. While this seems easy to reason, there are few organisations working to make sure that African farmers and citizens have access to permanent water sources. Access to water sources all year round would ensure that farmers can farm year in and year out.
What African governments must do
African governments must, therefore, invest in ensuring that their citizens have access to water. Measures that can be implemented include drilling and rehabilitating boreholes, creating reservoirs and irrigation systems, constructing hand-pumps and implementing water harvesting schemes. Such measures would go a long way and ensure that countries continue to face the same problem both in the short and long term periods.
“If Africa wants to end the recurring droughts, hard decisions must be made.”
Esther Ngumbi, Auburn University in Alabama. United States
Of course it is understandable that it can be hard to choose long-term solutions such as ensuring that citizens have access to permanent water sources year round over investing in short-term solutions when there are people who need help now.
Acknowledging this dilemma, Mitiku Kassa, the Ethiopia’s commissioner for disaster risk management, is reported to have described how hard it was to direct even a fifth of his budget towards well drilling. But such decisions must be made. The Ethiopian government still made that tough decision and sunk hundreds of bore wells throughout the country.
There is a great need to ramp up water harvesting and conservation efforts across the African continent. African governments and other stakeholders need to increase investment in multiple water-storing techniques. Such techniques include rain and flood water harvesting and the construction of water storage ponds and dams. But there should be no need to reinvent the wheel.
Time to learn from others
African countries can learn from other countries. Countries in the developed world have sustained their agriculture efforts by either drilling water wells to ensure they have access to the water they need for farming or by investing in rain and flood water harvesting. In California, for example, there have been a rise in the number of wells being drilled by farmers who use well water for farming. In 2016 alone, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley dug about 2,500 wells, a number that was five times the annual average reported in the last 30 years.
Countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand have made progress and are working on pilot projects that capture, harvest and store flood water. Stored water is then available for use by communities when they need it the most. Harvesting and storing water and making it available for agriculture, especially during the dry seasons, will allow citizens and smallholder farmers to farm throughout the year. These would further improve the resilience of farmers to the unpredictability of climate change.
If Africa wants to end the recurring droughts, hard decisions must be made. By addressing the fundamental and basic issues of long-term availability of water for agriculture, African countries can once and for all end this never-ending cycle of hunger.
Esther Ngumbi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama, United States. She serves as a 2015 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.
This week we spoke to Francisco Gomez and Ammani Kyanam, graduate students in the Soil and Crop Science Department at Texas A&M University, USA. They were part of the organizing committee for the recent Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium, a successful meeting run entirely by students at the University.
Francisco Gomez and Ammani Kyanam, part of the student organizing committee of the Plant Breeding Symposium
Could you begin with a brief introduction to the Plant Breeding Symposium held at Texas A&M in February?
Texas A&M University is one of the largest academic and public plant breeding institutions worldwide, which trains breeders in a variety of programs. Every year, students at the University organize the Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium, which is part of the DuPont Pioneer series of symposia. The symposium provides a platform for graduate students to bridge the interaction between the public and private sectors and engage in conversations about the grand challenges facing humanity that could be addressed by plant breeding. It’s also a great chance to network with faculty, students, and industry representatives.
Could you tell us more about this theme and how the different sessions were chosen?
We wanted the theme of the meeting to mirror the university’s goal of thinking big to pinpoint solutions to modern global challenges using plant science and breeding. Every member of the committee had the opportunity propose a theme, which were then put to a vote.
Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist and geneticist, was the inspiration for this year’s symposium. Image credit: Public Domain.
This year’s theme, “The Vavilov Method: Utilizing Genetic Diversity”, celebrated the life and career of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who identified the centers of origin of cultivated plants. We invited plant scientists and breeders who are applying Vavilov’s ideas through the conservation, collection, and effective utilization of genetic diversity in modern crop breeding programs. This year we also developed a workshop entitled “Where does a breeder go to find genetic diversity?”, which allowed students and faculty to talk about the importance of utilizing genetic diversity in crop improvement and to learn new tools to help them incorporate genetic diversity in breeding programs.
Could you tell us more about how you developed the workshop?
Our aim for the workshop was to engage students and faculty on where we can find genetic diversity, how we can use it, and to include a panel discussion on the challenges and the future of genetic diversity in modern plant breeding programs. As a new value-added event, the workshop was challenging to set up because it required a different set of skills to the rest of the meeting. Once we had an idea of what we wanted, we set up an initial meeting with our speakers where we brainstormed ideas. After several online meetings and e-mails with Professor Paul Gepts (UC Davis), Dr. Colin Khoury (Agricultural Research Service, USDA; check out his recent GPC blog here!), and Professor Susan McCouch (Cornell University), we finalized the structure of the workshop, the layout of the sessions, and the objectives for the speakers. We also had a representative from DivSeek, Dr. Ruth Bastow, on the discussion panel, who contributed to our discussion on future tools for accessing diversity in the future.
How has the symposium grown since the inaugural meeting in 2015?
Every year we want to make the symposium a memorable event, and we want other students and faculty to really get something out of it. We are learning more and more about the students and faculty with these events, particularly in terms of which topics are the most exciting or interesting. The symposium has also grown into a two-day event, with this year’s inclusion of the workshop.
Did you have to overcome any challenges in the organization of the event?
One of our biggest challenges was to secure funding for the event, which is free to attend. To add further value to our event, we wanted to have additional components such as a student research competition and/or workshop, which meant we had to aggressively fundraise from multiple sources. This involved writing a lot of grant proposals both to plant sciences departments across Texas A&M University, as well as to other sources of external funding.
What advice would you give a graduate student trying to organize a similar event?
Plan early and set small goals! Communication is key for a large team to organize such an event. We encourage groups to use Slack or some sort of team work interface. It really helped us to be in constant communication with each other during the months leading up to the symposium.
Could you tell us a little about your own research?
My research (Francisco Gomez) is focused on identifying genomic regions (known as quantitative trait loci; QTLs) associated with mechanical traits that are known to be associated with stem lodging, a major agronomic problem that reduces yields worldwide. My colleague and co-chair, Ammani Kyanam, received her Masters in Plant Breeding in while working in the cotton cytogenetics program in our department. Her research focused on developing genomic tools to facilitate the development of Chromosome Segment Substitution Lines for upland cotton. She is currently mapping QTLs for aphid resistance in sorghum for her Ph.D. You can learn more about the research of our individual committee members at http://plantbreedingsymposium.com/committee/.
How can our readers connect with you?
We have a strong social media presence via Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, where we post event videos, photos and periodical updates. Check them out below!
Could you begin by telling us a little about your research?
I am a plant physiologist specializing in seed biology. I have a long research record on various aspects of seeds, including the mechanisms and regulation of germination and dormancy, desiccation tolerance, as well as issues in seed technology. Being six years from retirement now, I decided to extend my desiccation tolerance studies from seeds to resurrection plants, which display vegetative desiccation tolerance. I strongly believe that unveiling of the mechanism of vegetative desiccation tolerance may help us create crops that are truly tolerant to severe drought, rather than (temporarily) resistant.
How did you become interested in this field of study, and how has your career progressed?
As with many things in life, it was coincidence. I majored in plant biochemistry and applied for a PhD position in seed biology. After obtaining the degree I was offered a tenure track position in seed physiology by the Laboratory of Plant Physiology at Wageningen University, where I still work as a faculty member. My career has progressed nicely and I am an authority in the field of seed science, editor-in-chief of the journal Seed Science Research, and will become the President of the International Society for Seed Science in September of this year.
I see my current work on vegetative desiccation tolerance as a highlight in my professional life. I have always been more interested in the desiccation tolerance of seeds until about five years ago, when my current collaborator Prof Jill Farrant of the University of Cape Town, South-Africa, made me enthusiastic about these wonderful resurrection plants. We started to work together and published our first study recently in Nature Plants.
In your recent paper, you sequenced the genome of the resurrection plant, Xerophyta viscosa, which can survive with less than a 5% relative water content. How is it possible for a plant to lose so much of its water and still survive?
These plants have a lot of characteristics that we’ve seen in seeds. They display protective desiccation tolerance mechanisms in their leaves, including anti-oxidants, protective proteins, and even dismantle their photosynthetic machinery during periods of drought. Even the cell wall structure and composition of resurrection plants resemble those of seeds. We are currently working on a paper describing the striking similarities between seeds and resurrection plants.
What was the most interesting discovery you made upon sequencing the genome of the resurrection plant?
First, the similarities between resurrection plants and seeds listed above were also apparent at the molecular level. For example, previous work suggested that the “ABI3 regulon”, consisting of about 100 genes regulated by the transcription factor ABI3, is specific to seeds, but we found that it is almost completely present (and active) in the leaves of Xerophyta viscosa too!
Secondly, we found “islands” or clusters of genes specific for desiccation tolerance that aren’t found in other species. Many of these regulate secondary metabolite pathways.
How challenging was it to sequence the genome of this plant? How did you overcome any difficulties?
It was very challenging. First, the species is an octoploid, meaning it has eight copies of each chromosome. This meant that we had to sequence its genome at very high coverage and employing the most advanced sequencing facilities, e.g. PacBio. Getting funding for this complex analysis was another challenge. We then took almost a year to assemble the genome and annotate it at the desired quality.
Xerophyta viscosa before and after the rains. Image credit: Prof. Henk Hilhorst.
You identified some of the most important genes involved in desiccation tolerance. Is it possible to translate this work into other species, such as crops that may be threatened by drought as the climate changes?
That will be our ultimate goal. It’s important to remember that desiccation-sensitive plants, including all our major crops, produce seeds that are desiccation tolerant. This implies that the information for desiccation tolerance is present in the genomes of these crops but that it is only turned on in the seeds. We are trying to determine how this is localized, in order to find a method to turn on the desiccation tolerance mechanism in vegetative parts of the (crop) plant too. In parallel we are expressing some of the key transcription factors from Xerophyta viscosa in some important crops to see how this affects them.
Are there any other interesting aspects of Xerophyta viscosa biology?
Contrary to plants that wilt and ultimately die because of (severe) drought, leaves of resurrection species do not show such stress-related senescence. This is related to the engagement of active anti-senescence genes during the drying of the leaves of resurrection species. We are currently investigating these senescence-related mechanisms too.
The rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica) is another resurrection plant. Image credit: FloraTrek. Used under license: CC BY-SA 3.0.
Do you expect to find that different types of desiccation-tolerant plants use the same subset of genes to survive drought, or could they have developed other pathways to resilience?
We expect that the core mechanism is very similar among the resurrection species but that each species may have adapted to its specific environment.
Funding permitting, we will sequence the genomes of at least another ten resurrection species to further clarify the various evolutionary pathways to desiccation tolerance and, importantly, to discriminate between species-specific and desiccation tolerance-specific genes.
What advice do you have for early career researchers?
Stick to what you believe in, even if you have to (temporarily) be involved in research that you appreciate less, e.g., because of better funding opportunities.
This post was written by Dr Colin Khoury. Colin studies diversity in the crops people grow and eat worldwide, and the implications of change in this diversity on human health and environmental sustainability. He is particularly interested in the wild relatives of crops. Colin is a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, and at the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.
New Changing Global Diet website explores changes in diets over the past 50 years in countries around the world.
One of the central concepts that unifies those concerned with biodiversity is the understanding that this diversity is being lost, piece by piece, to a greater or lesser degree, globally.
The same goes for the biodiversity of what we eat. Scientists and activists have worried about the loss of crops and their many traditional varieties for at least a hundred years, since botanist N. I. Vavilov traveled the world in search of plants useful for cultivation in his Russian homeland. He noticed that diversity was disappearing in the cradles of agriculture – places where crops had been cultivated continuously for thousands of years. The alarm sounded even louder 50 years ago, during the Green Revolution, when farmers in some of the most diverse regions of the world largely replaced their many locally adapted wheat, rice and other grain varieties with fewer, more uniform, higher yielding professionally bred varieties.
Cradles of agriculture: origins and primary regions of diversity of agricultural crops
(Click to magnify)
This is ironic, since modern productive crop varieties are bred by wisely mixing and matching diverse genetic resources. The disappearance of old varieties thus reduces the options available to plant breeders, including those working to produce more nutritious or resilient crops.
Being a food biodiversity scientist, I grew up (in the professional sense) with the loss of crop diversity looming over my head, providing both a raison d’être, and an urgency to my efforts. Somewhere along the line, I became interested in understanding its magnitude. That is, counting how many crops and how many varieties have been lost.
That’s where it started to become complicated, and also more interesting. Because, when I went looking for signs of the loss of specific crops, I couldn’t find any. Instead, I found evidence of massive global changes in our food diversity that left me worried, but at the same time hopeful.
A bit of background. Most of the numbers seen in the news on how much crop diversity has been lost go back to a handful of reports and books that reference a few studies: for example, the changing number of vegetable varieties for sale in the U.S. over time. The results are estimations for a few crops at local to national levels, but they somehow have been inflated to generalized statements about the global state of crop diversity, the most common of which being some variation of “75% of diversity in crops has been lost”.
Putting true numbers on diversity loss turns out to be a complicated and contested business, with no shortage of strong opinions. One big part of the problem is that there aren’t many good ways to count the diversity that existed before it disappeared. Researchers have done some work to assess the changes in diversity in crop varieties of Green Revolution cereals, and to some degree on the genetic diversity within those varieties. The results indicate that, although diversity on farms decreased when farmers first replaced traditional varieties with modern types, the more recent trends are not so simple to decipher.
It was particularly surprising to me that very little work had been done to understand the changes in what is probably the simplest level to measure: the diversity of crop species in the human diet, that is, how successful is maize versus rice versus potato versus quinoa and so on. I realized that data on the contribution of crops to national food supplies were available for almost all countries worldwide via FAOSTAT, with information for every year since 1961. Perhaps these were the data that could show when a crop fell off the world map.
Fast forward through a couple of years of investigation. To my great surprise, I found that not a single crop was lost over the past 50 years! There was no evidence for extinction. What was going on?
It turns out that my failure to see any loss of crops was due to the lack of sufficient resolution in the FAO data. Only 52 meaningful crop species-specific commodities are measured and a number of these are general groupings such as “cereals, other”. Because of this lack of specificity, the data couldn’t comprehensively assess the crops that have been most vulnerable to changes in the global food system over the past 50 years. In FAO data, these plants are either thrown into the general categories or they aren’t measured at all, especially if they are produced only on a small scale, for local markets or in home gardens. This is, in itself, sign enough that they may be imperiled. We need better statistics about what people eat (and grow) around the world. But, enough is known to be confident that many locally relevant crops are in decline.
Over the past 50 years, almost all countries’ diets actually became more diverse, not less, for the crops that FAO statistics do report on. We found that traditional diets that were primarily based on singular staples a half century ago, for instance rice in Southeast Asia, had diversified over time to include other staples such as wheat and potatoes. The same was true for maize-based diets in Latin America, sorghum- and millet-based diets in sub-Saharan Africa, and so on.
Not that there weren’t plant winners and losers. Wheat, rice, and maize, the most dominant crops worldwide 50 years ago, became more important globally. Other crops emerged as widespread staples, particularly oilcrops such as soybean, palm oil, sunflower, and rapeseed oil. And, as the winners came to take more precedence in food supplies around the world, alternative staples such as sorghum, millets, rye, cassava, sweet potato, and yam were marginalized. They haven’t disappeared (at least not yet), but they have become less important to what is eaten every day.
As countries’ food supplies became more diverse in the winner crops reported by FAO, and the relative abundance of these crops within diets became more even, food supplies worldwide became much more similar, with an average decrease in variation between diets in different countries of 68.8% over the past 50 years!
This is why, although we could see no absolute loss in crops consumed over the past 50 years, I am concerned. For even in the relatively small list of crops reported in the FAO data, many of these foods are becoming marginalized, day by day, bite by bite. That doesn’t seem like a good thing for the long-term resilience of our agricultural areas, nor for human health, although it’s important to remember that such changes are the collateral damage resulting from the creation of highly productive mega-crop farming systems, which have increased the affordability of these foods worldwide, leading to less stunting and other effects of undernutrition worldwide. On the other hand, global dependence on a few select crops equates to expansive monocultures, with more lives riding on the outcome of the game of cat and mouse between pestilence and uniform varieties grown over large areas. Moreover, cheaply available macronutrients have contributed to the negative effects of the nutrition transition, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
So why then am I hopeful? Because the data, and some literature, and my own direct experience also indicate that diets in recent years, in some countries, are beginning to move in different directions, reducing the excessive use of animal products and other energy-dense and environmentally expensive foods, and becoming more diverse, particularly with regard to fruits and vegetables, and even healthy grains. What better evidence than quinoa, which was relatively unknown outside the Andes a couple of decades ago, and is now cultivated in 100 countries and consumed in even more?
When we published our findings of increasing homogeneity in global food supplies, we hadn’t yet found a good way to make the underlying national-level data readily visible to interested readers. This is why I’m tremendously excited to announce the publication of our new Changing Global Diet website, which provides interactive visuals for 152 countries over 50 years of change. We that hope you will enjoy your own investigations of dietary change over time. Perhaps you can tell us where you think the changing global diet is headed.
One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.
When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.
Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today
According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.
Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.
Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.
Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient
Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”
And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.
Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.
Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world
We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.
But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.
Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.
Building healthy soil
Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.
I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.
Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.
No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.
So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.
We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.
Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.