Doomsday sayers have been raising the specter of famine and starvation due to mismatch between population growth and food production since a long time. But there are eternal optimists who feel if human race has outlived such situations in the past it will also find some away to perpetuate itself with suitable ameliorating strategies. Whether one believes it or not the oft repeated claim by many pundits is that one in eight people, on an average remains hungry due to inability to get adequate food every day! This works out to more than 800 million of the global population who remain starved, one of the reasons being non-availability of food near their habitat. But this is disputed by some social activists who contend that access to food is denied to these unfortunate fellow denizens because of economic compulsions, viz inadequate buying power. What ever it be, fact still remains that there does exist a problem vis-a-vis food security. This is compounded by the wide prevalence of nutrition insecurity due to imbalanced food production profile that constitutes today's crop mix. It is sad that more priority is accorded to crops like sugarcane and cereals than pulses and oil seeds in may countries depriving the people of the vital nutrient dense food commodities so necessary for an active and healthy life. Added to this the critical shortage of land for expanding agriculture further, places roadblocks for increasing food production. This calls for new strategies and approaches to quantitatively and qualitatively increase food production in coming years. Success of a group of scientists in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State in the US on plant flowering and the possibility of gene manipulation to increase yield of crops like Tomato through Florigen-Antiflorigen system gives hope for achieving quantum jump in food production much faster than that which can be obtained through conventional plant breeding. Here is a take on this exciting development.
"Crop yields of tomato plants could be boosted by 100 percent and plant breeders will be able to combine different gene variants among the set to create an optimal plant architecture for particular varieties and growing conditions. The set of mutations will enable farmers to maximize yield in tomatoes and potentially many other flowering plants, including staple crops like soybeans. Natural variation in plant genes stopped being the best way to increase yield a while ago and yield gains are plateauing. That means a modern scientific approach is needed. Worldwide, more than 842 million people do not receive adequate nourishment, about 1 person in 8 alive today. The cost of food is expected to increase and hunger is likely to become more widespread as the global population expands to beyond 9 billion by 2050 unless improvements are made in the agriculture of developing nations. Ancient humans recognized that selecting plants with modified architectures could have a major impact on the amount of fruit they produce. In general scientific terms, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Associate Professor Zachary Lippman explains, "Plant architecture results from a delicate balance between vegetative growth – shoots and leaves – and flower production. To increase crop yields, we want plants to produce as many flowers and fruits as possible, but this requires energy – energy that is produced in leaves." A set of genetic variants can dramatically increase tomato production. On the far left is the average yield from a plant that grows standard canning tomatoes. The next three piles were produced by plants with mutations found in the toolkit. The combination of genetic mutations on the far right produces twice as many tomatoes as the standard variety. Credit: Zachary Lippman/ Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory In tomatoes and all other flowering plants, the balance between vegetative growth and flowers is controlled by a pair of opposing hormones, called florigen and anti-florigen. Prior work by Lippman and Israeli colleagues showed that a mutation in florigen can shift the balance between vegetative growth and flowering, modifying plant architecture in a way that increases yield. This suggested that the balance between florigen and anti-florigen might not yet be optimal in tomato plants, despite centuries of breeding with natural variants. In a study published today in Nature Genetics, Lippman and colleagues identified an array of new gene mutations that allow, for the first time, a way to fine-tune the balance of florigen to anti-florigen. This maximizes fruit production without compromising the energy from leaves needed to support those fruits. "We mixed and matched all of the mutations," explains Lippman. "And we were able to produce plants with a broad range of architectures. Together, our collection of mutations forms a powerful toolkit for breeders to pinpoint a new optimum in flowering and architecture that can achieve previously unattainable yield gains." With multiple genetic variants, breeders can combine different mutations to provide a new optimum for their particular variety (as shown above) and growing conditions. Credit: Zachary Lippman/ Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory The breakthrough benefit of the toolkit, says Lippman, is that it allows farmers to customize genetic variations for particular varieties and growing conditions. "For example, we found that different combinations boost yields for cherry tomatoes and other fresh-market tomatoes compared to tomatoes that are processed for sauce, ketchup, and other canned products. We've tested this in multiple genetic backgrounds, in multiple years, and in multiple environments – and the toolkit always provides a new maximum yield." These results are likely to be broadly applicable to other flowering crops, Lippman says. Mutations that affect florigen and anti-florigen are already known to play a role in controlling plant architecture for the oil crops rapeseed and sunflower, and can be applied in those. But the team is anxious to move on to critical food crops, specifically soybeans, which share many growth similarities with tomato"
If scientists have been able to increase tomato production by 100% through this new approach there is no reason why the same success cannot be ensured for other more critical crops like pulses and oil seeds. In India the agricultural production has no doubt increased after the success of Green Revolution heralded by late Norman Borlaug but the food production profile seems to be lopsided with heavy emphasis on crops like cereals, sugarcane and non-food crops, neglecting such vital crops like pulses and oil seeds which continue to be imported at great cost to the exchequer. Though light, temperature and environment do play a part in crop production, the new emerging technology involving florigen-antiflorigen manipulation through gene mutation to change the plant architecture favoring more flowering and fruiting, appears to be best suited to Indian conditions. Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) must collaborate with the the institution that is pioneering the new technology to enable the country to achieve increased production of pulses and oilseed crops without losing much time.