Long seen as less important than human genomics, plant biology today is a strategic sector for the future development of agriculture.
How can we produce more with less? This question sums up the most important challenges for agriculture in the 21st century. From now on, we will have to produce more food to feed a population that will reach nine billion by 2050. But we will also have to produce more fibre, more feed and more biofuel to sustain the economic development of emerging countries.
Paradoxically, the essential basic resources to meet demand for agricultural products, like arable land, water for irrigation and NPK fertilizers, are scarce or, even more worrying, starting to be used up. These resources, which have allowed our civilization to grow for thousands of years, are now the focus of growing geopolitical tensions and local armed conflicts. In this context, land grabbing, lack of water in northern India and speculation with the price of basic food staples (rice, wheat, corn, etc.) have started to test the stability of many nations.
In contrast to this not very encouraging situation, spectacular progress made recently in the field of plant science, genomics and green biotechnology provides a favourable context for developing new and innovative solutions for agriculture in the twenty-first century.
Knowledge acquired in structural and functional models such as Arabidopsis thaliana is facilitating analysis and understanding of the genome of domesticated species. Continued development of plant varieties optimized by traditional natural selection and preservation and characterization and use of existing plant resources (biodiversity), will continue to be of great importance to obtaining improved, more productive varieties. Additionally, we must take into account the existence of techniques that allow for manipulation (transgenesis/cisgenesis), modification (mutagenesis), and new creation (synthetic biology) of all or most of the genome of cultivable plant species. This knowledge, in conjunction with rational use of modern agronomic techniques (sustainable agriculture, integrated pest management, sustainable use of pesticides, etc.) can potentially solve the problems associated with the expected increase in the global population.
The change of model and the need to reinvent the agriculture of tomorrow provide a series of valuable opportunities to develop new knowledge, which has a subsequent impact on economic prosperity, creating jobs and competitive advantage for companies. Due to its importance in the national economy, agriculture offers the Spain in general, and Catalonia specifically, a unique field in which to innovate, patent and develop new business opportunities. Over the past two decades, the Netherlands, slightly larger than Catalonia, has become a leader in the North Pole of European biotechnology and plant genomics, and is currently the leading world exporter of vegetable seeds.
Long seen as less important than human genomics, plant biology today is a strategic sector for the future development of agriculture. Now is the time for Catalonia to position and develop itself as the South Pole of innovation in biotechnology and plant genomics. Top-notch academic research, strong fruit and vegetable agro-businesses, and dynamizing agents and facilitators like Biocat are all key to achieving these goals.
*He is currently Director of Strategic Development & Innovation at Lacer