By 2050, the world population will grow from today’s 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion; by 2100, it will reach 11.2 billion, despite a general decline in birth rates. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 47 of the least developed nations account for most population growth on the planet. By 2050, the combined population of these states will grow from 1 billion today to 1.9 billion.
To deal with the problems posed by population growth, humankind must change its agricultural methods. To feed the world population 30 years from now, we will need 70% more food than is produced at present. But the production of many foods will be hampered by the shrinking area of arable land, climate change, and high energy costs.
Innovation-based “smart agriculture”offers a way to boost crop yields while cutting costs.
Scientists in many countries are working to develop high-tech agriculture. For example, Russia’s leading universities (primarily those involved in the Project 5-100 federal program) are diligently working on promising avenues of research and innovation related to smart agriculture.
New forms of wheat
Professor Nina Bohmeand Assistant Professor Natalya Kolokolova from Tyumen State University, jointly with scientists from Lomonosov Moscow State University and the Emanuel Institute of Biochemical Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, have been working to create new forms of plants, primarily spring wheat.
The key to these new forms is mutagenesis, or controlled plant mutation that leads to the emergence of new genetic traits, as well as hybridization.
“The effectiveness of the change depends on making the right selection of mutagens and their concentrations, and on the application technology. We use phosphamide, a chemical whose effect on plants has been little studied. So far we have established the optimal diapasons for concentrations, which we can recommend to geneticists, biotechnologists, and crop breeders,” the scientists say.
At stage two, the scientists studied how plant organisms responded to the mutagen factor, using morphological, physiological, genetic and other traits as markers. In order to speed up the evaluation and selection of useful mutations, they studied plants’ resistance to stress factors under modelled laboratory conditionsagainst challenge or infection background. The results were later verified in the field, making it possible to devise an accelerated proliferation technology based on the use of a growth chamber and to improve the evaluation methods by searching for new markers.
The research results indicate that this method has a verifiable positive influence on the parameters of sprouts both in the laboratory and the field. The scientists have obtained a spectrum of visible second-generation plant mutations. The mutagen in use causes safe mutations of the stalk, the ear, and the leaf, which has a positive effect on growth and development indices.
To grow a good harvest, one has to minimize or entirely eliminate the influence of biotic factors (viruses, insect pests such as the Colorado beetle, wire worms, and others). Many producers use chemical weed and pest killers that solve these problems in a radical way. Plants treated with chemicalsare protected frompests and disease, while the root crops keep for a long time. But the toxins they soak up can eventually find their way into the human body.
To reduce their pernicious effects, TSU scientists are developing a brassinosteroid-based protective solution for vegetables. (Brassinosteroids are natural phytohormones that prevent plant immunity failures under adverse conditions.)
While studying new compounds, the scientists test bioregulators on different crops to see which of their properties could be used to protect plants. One of these useful characteristics is the brassinosteroids’ ability to prevent plants from accumulating heavy metals which make products toxic.
Brassinosteroid-based drugs can be used to replace other forms of protection along with pesticides, if, for example, it is needed to get rid of weeds or pests. But the harm done to both plants and their “progeny” by chemical weed and pest killers will be much less. The resultant seeds will be healthier and yield a high-quality crop next year, as shown by experiments with potatoes.
Apart from that, the Tyumen scientists are studying another 10 steroid phytohormones that might be of use in creating new environmentally safe biostimulators.
The Tyumen scientists are focused on growing legumes, cucurbits and other crops contributing to a healthy diet.
They experiment with growing species with dark-colored fruit and pigmented seeds(anthocyans) possessing antioxidant properties. The high anticancer pigment contentis characteristic of various black-seed species, for which reason advocates of healthy diets in many countries prefer black sesame, beans and lentils.
Studies show that black beans contain more pigments with anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic effects. They also increase metabolism and vascular elasticity, while simultaneously protecting plants from adverse factors such as pathogenic microorganisms.
In addition, a number of crops, such as lentils, beans, pumpkins, and the exotic kiwano (African cucumber) are being tested for tolerance to cold. Extreme temperature conditions are created, with seeds grown at 10-12°C, which suggests that they will grow in the open. Green beans have already shown good promise. Later technologies will be devised for growing other thermophilic crops in the Siberian climate.