Health care for Crops - Tina Kyndt

In 2050 human nutrition is predominantly plant-based. ‘Thursday Veggie-day’ has been replaced by ‘Sunday Meatday’ and the consumption of meat-products is now considered a ‘guilty pleasure’. Crop production has been incrementally optimized to feed the growing human population. As a consequence of climate change, (sub)tropical pathogens and pests have migrated north, creating new challenges for crop protection in previously temperate climates. Also abiotic stress factors, such as drought and salt stress, have increased dramatically. Based on a lack of negative effects observed during 50 years of production in other parts of the world, Europe has gradually adopted genetically modified crops with improved stress tolerance. Further optimization of gene editing technology has allowed to make subtle and very specific DNA changes, which made a strict regulation of transgenic crops tacitly impossible.

To replace pesticides and as a follow-up on ‘integrated pest management’ a general concept of ‘health care for crops’ is inherent to agronomy of the 2050’s. Specifically, farmers primarily focus on disease prevention and avoid the use of curative measures. Each agronomic region has undergone a risk analysis allowing to select and apply the most appropriate preventive measures depending on the encountered abiotic and biotic stress factors. Using smart technologies (sensors, drones, apps, ...), partially developed at our faculty, plant stress and disease/pest outbreaks can be quickly detected in a farmers field and its neighboring acres. This technology allows to regularly inform a farmer on the health status of his/her farmlands while concurrently providing adequate solutions for any detected problem. The knowledge that plants have an immune system and establish a beneficial interaction with their microbiome has allowed to enrich soils with an optimal mix of micro-organisms that stimulate growth and health of crop plants. Just as in human health care farmers provide their crop plants with an adequate supply of nutrients, vitamins and minerals adapted to specific environmental requirements.

Research at our faculty has significantly contributed to the elucidation of molecular mechanisms that control plant immunity and growth. These mechanisms can now be optimized through well-considered changes to the plant genome. Next to that, research has uncovered novel compounds that stimulate plant growth and defense, leading to the availability of agronomic health care products that promote plant growth (biostimulants) or contain resistance-inducing agents.

Tina Kyndt