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Increasing Varieties of Domesticated Crops Demand New Specialized Agricultural Chemicals
Posted on April 25th, 2017 by Christina Valimaki in Chemical R&D
Worldwide demand for many crops far outstrips production – and the situation is worsening. While drought and famine have long been relatively common in many areas, the 2016 El Niño warming phenomenon disrupted growing conditions throughout the world, laying bare the fragility of the global food economy and the limited range of crops upon which it relies.
In the spring of 2017, poor rainfall – along with the ever-present threat of human conflict – triggered widespread famine among 70 million people in the Horn of Africa, with some areas producing 63 percent less than the normal yield of rice and other cereal crops. Even Europe is tightening its belt, as poor winter crop yields have led to price hikes and vegetable purchase limits at many supermarkets.
Adding to the strain is a rapidly growing world population. The World Bank predicts that global food production needs to increase at least 50 percent within the next 30 years to feed a population of 9 billion people. Over that same period of time, climate change is expected to cut crop yields by an estimated 25 percent.
In response to this looming crisis, teams of botanists and geneticists are working to improve the size and flavor of cheaper, hardier plants to meet the growing demand of global food production. This rapid expansion in the range of large-scale food crops creates an enormous demand for synthetic chemical R&D into specialized pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
Among the 300,000 plant species on earth, a mere three species – rice, wheat and maize – account for the majority of all plant matter consumed by humans. Thousands of years of artificial selection have made these three plants relatively fast-growing, high-yielding, neutral-tasting and easy to digest. With modern gene editing, we don’t have to wait thousands of years to select beneficial mutations in other plants, and thus we can vastly accelerate their domestication as viable food crops.
For example, researchers recently used RNA interference to silence genes involved in fatty acid synthesis in wild field cress, a type of weedy grass, improving the quality of the plant’s seed oil. Another lab induced random mutations in weeping rice grass (a wild relative of domestic rice) using chemical mutagenesis, producing a grass variety that held onto more of its seeds after it ripened.
Geneticists are now using CRISPR technology to target “semi-domesticated” grains like quinoa and amaranth, which can grow in poorer, saltier soils and higher altitudes than traditional crops. Other research teams, meanwhile, are looking far beyond grains – investigating the potential of certain compounds in jackfruit, for example, to produce the same aromas found in cocoa beans at much lower cost.
As geneticists achieve more successes with “accelerated domestication,” the variety of specialized food crops will multiply – as will the data on these plants’ growth patterns, metabolisms and pests. Agricultural chemical R&D teams who have access to this data, and who can easily share new findings across engineering and process teams, will be the first to synthesize compounds to address these needs and bring those compounds to market.
Production stability isn’t the only anticipated benefit of introducing new domesticated crops. Many labs are also investigating the positive effects certain plants – and their symbionts – may have on the environment; not only by increasing biodiversity, but also by reducing the use of harmful chemicals.
Several labs are currently investigating the use of microbial inoculants – bacteria and fungi that promote plant growth – as an alternative to chemical fertilizers. For example, one team found that when certain mycorrhizal fungi and soil bacteria are introduced into crop substrates, these organisms strengthened the entire soil food chain by increasing biodiversity, even helping to increase the population of insects known as springtails, which consume decaying plant matter.
Meanwhile, other labs are using living organisms to address the problem of excess nitrogen runoff from fertilizers, a common pollutant in many areas of the world. Legumes such as wild soybeans, which live in symbiosis with bacteria, naturally convert atmospheric nitrogen into their own fertilizer; and by introducing modified legumes that produce nutritious, palatable fruit – but retain this bacterial symbiosis – botanists believe farmers may be able to bolster crop yields while simultaneously reducing nitrogen pollution.
Discoveries like these can abruptly eliminate the market viability of a chemical fertilizer – creating a clear need for research systems that provide ready access to the latest agricultural findings, while enabling chemists to utilize new data at every iteration of the design process. Opportunities often exist to integrate pesticides and fertilizers into engineered ecosystems. The labs that patent those compounds first will be the winners in this evolving marketplace.
The interwoven threats of food shortages, unstable ecosystems and agricultural pollution drive rapid evolution in all agricultural industries – and agricultural chemistry is certainly no exception. Many synthetic chemical R&D teams struggle to keep up with the changing demands of this marketplace – but teams that utilize advanced strategic planning systems will be able to discover, test, fine-tune and manufacture useful new pesticides and herbicides before market conditions shift, putting them several steps ahead of their competitors.
Find out more about Agricultural Chemical R&D in this white paper: ‘Increasing Pressures in Agricultural Chemical R&D Demand New Workflow Solutions’
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