Seeds for Humanity… “Pulses, which are among the world’s most ancient cultivated plants, have nourished people for millennia.” In my research on sustainable farming via agricultural technology, I discovered the amazing bean and its many benefits for people, farmers, and the planet.
World population is predicted to double by 2050, imposing an increasing demand for food that comes together with an increasing concern on environment and food security. Under this pressing scenario for agriculture, the widely acknowledged beneficial role of legumes in cropping systems, by increasing biological nitrogen fixation, reducing energy costs, improving soil physical conditions and biodiversity, is more needed than ever.
On-going climate change poses an increasing threat to production of target food legumes, requiring urgent implementation of agronomic and genetic means of addressing this threat. Therefore, it is essential we intensify legume genetic enhancement programs. We need global accelerated development of cultivars possessing high yield, genetic resilience against stresses, and enhanced nutritional quality. In short, we need better seeds…
What are Pulses?
Known as orphan crops, pulses receive much less attention from researchers and policy makers compared to major commercial crops. There is a great scope for developing improved varieties of pulses, with higher resilience to drought, salinity and diseases, as they will play a vital role in the face of adverse climate change impacts on crop productivity. Pulses are an absolutely ESSENTIAL source of protein, nutrients, and fiber for much of the world’s population, especially in Climate Change at-risk areas such as Africa, Asia, and South America.
Beans are highly water efficient, improve soil diversity via nitrogen fixing, and provide a “green” manure for agriculture, thus lowering both fertilizers needed and final carbon footprint.
Legumes/Pulses/Beans … whatever you want to call them… are important to Emerging Market economies, but legume seed innovation is way behind the cereals such as corn and wheat. Despite the advantages, legume cultivation has not met these expectations and remains below that of other crops, such as cereals. This has been accompanied by a progressive replacement of traditional farming systems with industrialized, largely cereal-based systems, heavily reliant upon fossil fuels.
Problem: Legume acreage is down:
Acreage of most temperate legumes (pea, faba beans, vetches, lupin) has declined worldwide in the last 50 years. Many reasons have been given for this decline in legume acreage, but low and unstable yields as well as susceptibility to biotic and abiotic stresses, are chiefly to blame.
Soybean is the only legume whose acreage is continuously increasing in Europe, reaching 3.45 million ha in 2012, more than all other legumes together.
Problem: Legume yield is down:
Insect infestation, both in the field and after harvest, is a major threat to legume crops. The average yield of temperate legumes has increased relatively little during the past 50 years, with a just about 50% increase for most legumes. The highest yield increase (around 100%) has been for lentil, groundnut, and soybean, which are still below the increases achieved by major cereal crops (130%-160%).
What’s the deal?
Breeding for improved crop cultivars, to better sustain livelihood and increase the economic return to farmers, has been undertaken for many years, but to date it seems that the mighty legume has missed out on the seed biotech and agtech revolution. Global yields of legumes have been relatively stagnant for the last five decades despite the adoption of conventional and molecular breeding approaches.
Yield stability of legume crops is constrained by a number of pest and diseases.
Major diseases are rusts, powdery and downy mildews, ascochyta blights, botrytis gray molds, anthracnoses, damping-off, root rots, collar rots, vascular wilts and white molds. Parasitic weeds, viruses, bacteria, nematodes and damages caused by chewing and sap-sucking insects add to this long list of constraints for legume production. Although yield and total biomass produced by annual legumes remain major objectives for breeders, there are other issues such as:
- Environmental friendliness.
- Resource use efficiency including symbiotic performance.
- Resilient production in the context of climate change.
- Adaptation to sustainable cropping systems (reducing leaching, greenhouse gas emissions and pesticide residues)
- Adaptation to diverse uses (seeds for feed, food, non-food, forage or green manure).
- New ecological services such as pollinator protection.
What’s being done?
- The use of plant growth-promoting (PGP) bacteria for improving agricultural production, soil and plant health has become one of the most attractive strategies for developing sustainable agriculture.
- So far the SbG technologies have been deployed extensively in genetic mapping, purity testing, establishing marker-trait associations, marker-assisted selection (MAS), and genomic selection (GS) for crop improvement.
- Research on developing climate resilient chickpea using germplasm including cultivated chickpea introgressed with wild ancestors from a unique, diverse, and recent collection in Turkey, is underway. Trait differences across 20 wild chickpea populations that affect the crop’s responses to drought, heat and climate resilient nitrogen fixation are being studied.
- There have been several attempts to alter the amino acid composition of the globulins through the use of natural variation, and through genetic manipulation either to directly modify globulin amino acid sequence or to express exogenous sulfur-rich proteins.
- The recent development of large scale phenotyping, genome sequencing and analysis of gene, protein and metabolite expressions will be of great help in further deciphering plant-pathogen interactions and identifying key resistance components in our little buddy, that Magical Fruit.
Targets for legume seed protein improvement include:
- Removal of anti-nutritional factors and activities that generate undesirable flavors.
- Removal of potential allergens.
- Improved digestibility.
- Improved functional behavior for processing.
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