AsianScientist (Apr. 28, 2020) – While farmers have always been subject to the vagaries of soil and seasons, they now face unprecedented challenges that threaten to radically alter the ancient art of agriculture. Food now flows into a supply chain network spanning the globe, with hidden dependencies and a tendency toward wild fluctuations in demand and supply. Climate change has intensified the pressures on farmers—impacting crop yields, driving the spread of pests and damaging supplies of essential natural resources like water and soil.
The issues at hand are complex and require a comprehensive approach spanning policy, international diplomacy and community engagement. But just as it has in the past, technology can play a pivotal role. The invention of the plough arguably led humans to switch from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, while the hybridization of crops powered the Green Revolution; what similarly transformative technologies can we look forward to in the future?
To get a glimpse of what’s in store, we caught up with Dr. Neal Gutterson, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Corteva Agriscience, a US$14 billion company spun out of a 2017 merger between industry giants Dow and DuPont, and a leader in agricultural R&D. He spoke to Asian Scientist Magazine about how technologies such as drones and gene editing are already shaping the face of farming.
Tackling pests through geodata and drones
Capable of flying 100 kilometres in a single night, the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) moth has spread like wildfire across the globe, striking fear in the hearts of farmers from Henan to Karnataka. While it prefers to attack corn, the fall armyworm will eat almost any cultivated crop. This unfussiness, coupled with its unique habit of burrowing deep in corn whorls where pesticides cannot reach, make it difficult to get rid of.
“Once an area is infested they will always be there; you’ll never fully eradicate them,” Gutterson said.
First reported in Africa in 2016, the fall armyworm spread to India and Thailand before reaching China in late 2018. Losses to maize alone are estimated to be in the billions, and reports of pesticide resistance are already emerging.
“This is going to be a serious battle,” Gutterson said. “But we have tools and solutions that can help.”
Corteva’s strategy against fall armyworm is three-pronged: in the seed, on the seed and on the farm, Gutterson said. Firstly, resistant crop strains are being developed with the help of biotech traits. Secondly, pesticides used in other regions are being rolled out in Asia. However, the development of new crop strains takes time and may not be widely accepted, while resistance and concerns over cost-effectiveness may limit their impact. The third way is to try to nip the problem in the bud, Gutterson said, using technology to spot and contain the pest before it spreads.
“Today, we have surveillance drones to monitor crop health. These drones can identify what’s happening on farms and use that information to guide our customers on how to manage their crops successfully,” Gutterson said.
“But our vision for the future of farming is one in which you have satellites capturing images every day, informing the farmer about their crop health. The farmer can then act on this information by sending out a drone to understand problems in the field with detailed pictures. Drones can also be sent out to spray specific areas rather than the whole field, thereby reducing the environmental impact and possibility of resistance.”
Using CRISPR to pack in healthy proteins
From pests we turn our attention to one of society’s most pressing problems: providing enough protein for a burgeoning global population that is consuming more than ever before. Gene editing has a role to play here as well, both indirectly by creating high-protein animal feed as well as directly by modifying plants to make them more suitable as alternative protein sources.
Aquaculture is an important source of protein, particularly in Asia where aquaculture was first developed. However, farmed fish need to be fed fishmeal which is derived from wild-caught fish, and demand is fast outstripping supply.
Corteva, together with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, has licensed its CRISPR-Cas9 technology to biotech startup Amfora, for use in developing high-protein soy that rivals the protein content of fishmeal. The technology also has the potential to increase the nutritional density of food crops such as wheat and rice, enhancing their protein content while at the same time lowering their starch content to create low-glycemic-index carbohydrates.
And though the total consumption of plant-based meat alternatives is still miniscule compared to the 330 million metric tons of meat produced in 2018, the market is rapidly growing.
“When you think where this trend will take the world in 30 or 40 years, it can get pretty big,” Gutterson said.
“We need to think about what are the right crops and cropping systems that can serve the future of plant-based meat replacements,” he continued. “We know legumes such as peas will be very important and are also researching how soybeans—which we know how to produce very well and in large amounts—can be modulated with tools like genome editing to become a better source of meat-replacement proteins.”
Helping the environment and agriculture become allies
But of all the problems faced by farmers, climate change is arguably the biggest issue of all. On the one hand, agricultural output is affected by volatile climates, but on the other hand, when sustainable best practices are not in place, agricultural activities themselves can be contributors to carbon emissions, primarily through land conversion.
Gutterson believes that technology can flip the narrative, not only reducing the negative impact of farming on the environment but potentially reversing some of the impacts of climate change.
“How can we turn farming systems into an ally in the challenge of addressing climate change? How can we help farmers not just reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced, but also absorb carbon from the atmosphere into the soil? How can we make farming so effective in terms of yields that we don’t have to convert land?” Gutterson said. “These are questions Corteva is asking in our quest for what we call ‘climate-positive’ agriculture.”
The answers, he believes, are to be found by interacting directly with the farmers themselves and cultivating relationships of trust.
“To anticipate what the future will look like, we have to first understand what farmers need,” he said. “We want to provide them with the tools to be better at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions or even improving the environment; not just to help them or our company be successful, but to address the greater goal of changing agriculture for the benefit of society.”
Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of Corteva Agriscience.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustration: Oikeat Lam.
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