Waiting for genome Editing

Everyone is aware that the planet does not have unlimited resources, but few operate in a way congruent to this observation. Among the few, alas, we do not count those who matter.

If we took us into space and observed the planet (or more prosaically took a stroll with Google Earth) we would find it more and more yellow and less green and we would realize that there are no new fertile lands to cultivate, that many of those that were available have been rendered unproductive due to indiscriminate urbanization or salinization or progressive soil acidification of tropical areas or desertification.

Agricultural production needs fertile landa s well as fertilizers and water, but even in this respect we are not doing very well. The mineral reserves of phosphorus are running out, those of potassium are not infinite, the production of nitrogen fertilizers requires a lot of energy and generates impacts no longer negligible. Water appears to be less and less distributed because, due to climate change, its availability is concentrated only in certain periods and only in certain places, causing exhausting droughts in one part of the planet and floods due to excessive abundance alternating with severe shortages in the other. However, compared to the last century, the way of production has changed from an agriculture oriented only to maximize production to an agriculture careful to contain costs, eliminate waste, and enhance resources. Developments in chemistry, genetics and mechatronics, have supported this paradigm shift by providing the means to undertake this path. We are only at the beginning, but the direction is the right one. Now we would like Europe to play its part by overcoming localism and understanding that the only acceptable framework for its agricultural policies is the entire planet.

One of the problems not yet solved in terms of sustainability is that of plant nutrition, which too often is inefficient, depletes resources and generates costs that reduce the accessibility to food. Moreover, the use of fertilizers is the subject of a critical review for the problems of groundwater pollution (nitrogen), eutrophication of lake basins (phosphorus) and emission of climate-altering substances (nitrogen peroxide).

Today the distribution of solid fertilizers is almost entirely entrusted to the spreader by centrifugal reaction because it is characterized by an extraordinary working capacity. The poor quality of distribution, inherent in the principle adopted, has been brilliantly overcome thanks to the implementation of ingenious mechanical and mechatronic devices, while precision agriculture thanks to its technology (automatic guidance, field edge recognition, variable rate) allows to improve distribution efficiency with significant product savings. The fertilizer industry could contribute by working on the physical characteristics of fertilizers and, a fundamental step, exposing them on the label to allow a better distribution.

In the medium and long term, on the other hand, the scenarios on plant nutrition will be dominated by genetics, which is already taking timid steps on promising and unexpected lines of research, because they are aimed at reducing the link between fertilization and production, for example by looking for ways to extend the ability to synthesize nitrogen compounds to cereals and other non leguminous crops. This would be an exceptional opportunity because it would reduce dependence on the production and distribution of this nutrient. Other interesting hypotheses concern the strengthening of root systems to improve their ability to explore the soil and to absorb nutrients and water. Among these, although still far from being realized, is that of transforming the main annual crops into perennials: this, among other consequences, would lead to the development of root systems capable of creating a more stable rhizosphere and exploring a greater amount of soil improving, in fact, the ability to capture nutrients and absorb water.

All this is as useful as it is urgent and it would therefore be desirable that European public (above all) and private (obviously) research could contribute to this genetic research using genome editing techniques such as Crispr, powerful tools denied today.

Lorenzo Benvenuti

Agri Machines World © 2024 All Rights Reserved