Genomics: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security

As we begin to face the twin pressures of climate change and population growth, new strategies are needed to manage agricultural risks and improve food resilience systems. Key to this will be harnessing the power of genomics to improve crop utility, diversity, and yield, with the likes of BGI Group delivering scientific breakthrough advancements in this field.

This month, the African Development Bank announced it will provide a $14 million grant to tackle food insecurity in South Sudan, with the project set to increase crop yield across 20,000 farms in the country.

This follows an announcement by the World Food Bank in November to launch a new ‘Food Systems Resilience Program’ (FSRP), which is set to increase agricultural productivity across West Africa. Drawing upon $570 million of International Development Association (IDA) financing, the programme is expected to promote intraregional value chains and build regional capacity to help manage agricultural risk in countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Togo.

Programmes such as these cannot come at a more critical time.

Food security is now one of Africa’s most pressing issues, with the continent experiencing a wave of shocks that have devastated smallholder farmers. In 2019, Cyclone Idai and Kenneth ravaged southern Africa. Later that year, droughts, severe flooding, and landslides plagued southwestern and East Africa. And in 2020, East Africa experienced the most severe desert locust infestation in over 70 years.

While the situation in Africa is particularly acute, food security is a growing challenge globally, with populations set to skyrocket and climate change anticipated to shrink the availability of arable land.

‘We face a grand challenge in terms of feeding the world,’ said Lee Hickey, a plant geneticist at the University of Queensland in Australia. ‘If you look at the stats, we’re going to have about 10 billion [people] on the planet by 2050 and we’re going to need 60 to 80 percent more food to feed everybody. It’s an even greater challenge in the face of climate change and diseases that affect our crops that are also rapidly evolving.’

As a result of these pressures, the UN fears the world is not on track to meet its Sustainable Development Goal of achieving zero hunger by 2030, with current estimates predicting that 8.9 per cent of the global population are malnourished.

Many people believe the only way to achieve universal food security will be through scientific innovation, with genomics proving a powerful tool to manage agricultural risks and improve food resilience systems.

Scientific research can help to decrease pressure on available arable land, reducing the susceptibility of crops to climate change-related pressures and disease to enable crops to be grown in land that would otherwise be unusable. Similarly, genomics can be used to reduce demand on arable land by improving crop yields, enabling farmers to produce more from the same land mass.

Indeed, agricultural genomics is a rich field that has been contributing to advances in crop development for decades. From sequencing reference genomes, to genomic prediction, to genotyping for genome-wide association studies, advances in technology and scientific research have led to breakthroughs in crop improvement.

For instance, just last year, international research teams used BGI Group’s sequencing technology to undertake extensive genome studies of chickpea, identifying an additional 1,582 previously unknown chickpea genes, including ones that encode responses to environmental factors such as acidity, oxidative stress, and cold.

The result was to deliver the most comprehensive genetic map of any vegetable species, with scientists now able to pinpoint the 24 haplotypes that can improve yield per plant, increase seed weight, and reduce the time it takes for a plant to flower.

Similar breakthroughs have been achieved with quinoa. Through undertaking genomic sequencing, researchers have found that specific strains of quinoa can tolerate 38-degree heat, salty soil, and high altitudes, meaning this grain could soon provide a healthy, nutritious food source for the world using land and water that currently cannot be used.

In a similar vein, genomics has been used as a powerful tool to increase yield per plant for other essential crops, with research led by BGI Group scientists leading to breakthrough advancements with rice and soybeans. In mapping the genetic traits of these crops, BGI Group believes the information in the genome will help food production keep pace with the planet’s growing population and declining arable land area

Another potential way for genomics to lend itself to crop improvement and food security is through the collection-wide sequencing and classification of established seed banks or genebanks. These store large collections of important agricultural species, organised by taxonomy and origin. One such genebank is the China National GeneBank (CNGB), located in Shenzen and managed by BGI-Research, which provides a unified and secure platform for biological big data sharing among the international research community.

Equivalent genebanks that operate in a similar fashion include the world-renowned International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration (INSDC), which consists of a joint operation to securely store databases containing DNA and RNA sequences between the DNA Data Bank of Japan (DDBJ), European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in the UK, and National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in the USA. Genebanks such as this and the CNGB allow for a comparative and holistic view of the world-wide composition of crops, providing raw material for engineering improved agricultural plant species.

Frequently, national gene banks from the US to China are operated by companies or organizations commissioned by governments, providing appropriate storage of genetic material in line with international and national standards on privacy, security, and scientific transparency.

It is clear that genomics can play a pivotal role in tackling the growing challenge of food insecurity, with cutting-edge scientific research opening the doors for increased crop utility, diversity, and yield. What has been achieved to date is incredibly significant. But the pace of development is only likely to accelerate, with centres such as the Desert Life Science Laboratory, now springing up worldwide.

As a joint venture between the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and BGI Group, the Desert Life Science Laboratory is poised to fast-track the development of crops suited to marginal environments, such as areas of high soil salinity or water scarcity.

It is precisely innovative research such as this, which will safeguard our future and ensure the world can meet the growing threat of food insecurity.


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