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Agriculture: disruptive innovations

Last week I chaired a meeting of the United Nations Advisory Board on Science Technology and Innovation formed by the UN Commission for the South and Central Asian region (UNESCAP) that covers 62 countries. In my talk I described how innovations are transforming economies and how nations that are investing in Science, Technology and Innovation are marching forward, leaving others biting the dust.

The rate of new discoveries and their consequent impact is mind-boggling. The two field0s that will perhaps impact our lives in the most profound manners are artificial intelligence and next generation genomics. These two fields converge in the area of bioinformatics, which involves the application of computer science in managing biological information. With the exciting advances in decoding genetic information associated with animal or plant genomes, the data that is now becoming available is huge. To interpret this data, bioinformatics is being employed by combining computer science with statistics, mathematics and engineering.

Agriculture is one area that will be impacted in a major way. For example, why is it that you get mangoes only in the summer and not in the winter? Plants and animals have certain genes that regulate their biochemical, physiological and behavioural functions during night and day. In humans they are known as ‘cycardian rhythms’ and they usually operate in a 24-hour cycle.

In plants the photosynthetic processes are controlled by these biological clocks, and plants know through this mechanism when is the best time to flower, and when to fruit. It has been known that this mechanism in plants occurs through the sequential activation and deactivation of ‘morning genes’ and ‘evening genes’. Scientists at          Yale    have found the precise gene (named DET1) responsible for regulating these functions in plants. This has opened up possibilities of controlling the biological clocks in plants, and thereby obtaining crops throughout the year, instead of in a particular season. The time is not far when you will be able to eat mangoes and other fruits round the year as scientists will be able to turn these genes that control the biological clocks on and off as desired.

A major problem facing the world with its growing population is that of food. This is directly connected with the availability of water. With growing temperatures due to climate change, deserts are spreading as fewer areas can be cultivated due to increasing shortages of fresh water. There is no shortage of water on our planet. About two-thirds of our planet is covered with water. Unfortunately it is sea water and the salt present makes it useless for cultivation of crops.

There are two approaches that are being actively pursued to use this water for agriculture. One approach is trying to remove the salt present in sea water cheaply and efficiently so that the water can then be used for growing food crops. This can be done by the process of ‘reverse osmosis’, which involves pumping salt water through a special membrane. The salt remains on one side while pure water is pumped out of the other side of the membrane. The problem has been the high cost of the membrane, its limited life and the costs of energy required in the pumping process.

An exciting new substance ‘graphene’ has come to the rescue. Graphene comprises a one atom sheet of carbon atoms.  Engineers at Lockheed-Martin have recently developed and patented a molecular filtration membrane based on graphene called ‘Perforene’ which can desalinate seawater using only 1/100th the energy of the best existing desalination systems. The substance is a thousand times stronger than steel and 500 times thinner than the best exiting reverse osmosis membrane. The energy that is required to filter salt water through this new type of membrane is 100 times less.

If you walk on the beaches around Karachi you will find seaweed and plants growing happily under In the second approach, exciting work is being carried out to identify the genes present in seaweed or mangroves that gives them salt tolerance, and then incorporate these genes in crops so that they can be grown with sea water as well as on saline soils. Work in this direction is presently under way at the Jamilur Rahman Research Centre on Genomics Research at Karachi University.

With growing global water shortages and decreasing availability of cultivable land caused by the huge increases in the world population, scientists are constantly striving to come up with new more efficient ways to grow food plants. These plants should have higher productivity but should need lower amounts of water, fertilizer, nutrients and pesticides to grow.

An interesting solution to the problem has been found by researchers at Purdue University who discovered that a certain chemical can be used to reduce the size of the plant without reducing the yield.  Propiconazole, a common fungicide, can be used to create smaller and sturdier corn plants that produce more kernels but consume less water, fertilizer and nutrients to grow.

Another exciting development to generate energy from agricultural products has been the development of ‘grassoline’. In a study carried out in the US by the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy, the US can produce gasoline from cellulosic biomasses. The grasses from which the cellulosic biomass is being generated are on soil on which normal food crops cannot be grown. Cellulose contains thousands of glucose molecules linked to one another to form chains. The challenge has been to break down the cellulose into smaller components and remove the bound oxygen.

The technology involves a flash heating process by which cellulose is rapidly heated to 500ºC. This results in the formation of smaller oxygen-rich molecules. A catalytic process then removes the oxygen, resulting in the formation of a new kind of petroleum – ‘grassoline’. Tomorrow you may well be driving cars on petroleum produced from grass and old newspapers.

In order to compete in this rapidly changing world, Pakistan must invest massively in education, science, technology and innovation for sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development. For this, the government must appoint top scientists, engineers and educationists of international repute as ministers and secretaries – backed by highly professional think tanks. In this day and age of specialisation, it is important to have top specialists in their respective fields running the government so that we can develop a strong knowledge economy by developing capabilities in the manufacture and export of medium and high technology products. This requires the dynamic interplay between the three key partners of the ‘triple helix’ – universities/research institutions, government policies and the private sector.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation and former chairman of the HEC. Email: ibne_sina@hotmail.com

Atta-ur-Rahman, "Agriculture: disruptive innovations," The News. 2016-10-19.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Environmental issues , Climate change , Global warming , Agriculture , Crops , Environment , Jamilur Rahman , Karachi , UNESCAP