A 10,000-year-old technique paves the way to a future in agriculture

For a second, shut your eyes and picture a farmer in your mind. Does a dusty man or a woman, with a plough and a pair of oxen, toiling away on his land and looking up at the sky in the hope of spotting a cloud, come to mind? If it does, you may need a more updated picture! Contrary to the stories that always paint a gloomy picture for agriculture in India, farming today is a sophisticated profession using advanced technological tools, and the future is even brighter.
Much like the revolutionary advances underway in medical technology, we are amidst major transformative changes in agriculture. Cutting edge technologies like Autonomous Vehicles, Drones, Robots, Big Data, Genome Engineering and Precision Farming are some of the terms you are likely to hear at a farm tech meeting these days. There is no doubt that this is where the best jobs in the next hundred years will come from! Equally promising are the allied sciences and technologies which will play an important role in meeting food demand in the next 3 decades which is expected to more than triple! By 2050, farmers must produce 70 percent more food than today to sustain the world’s population. Continued innovations in crop improvement are necessary to develop improved crop varieties that are needed to meet this demand.

Young people will pave the way forward for the same.

They need to be sensitive about ground realities in India and draw motivation to help create solutions. The potential of science, innovation and technology can be ushered in only by our youth. In the past, they have worked to modernize other sectors such as telecom, and now the future lies in agriculture. However, for long this potential has been underutilized. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), between 2010 and 2015 more jobs were available in ag and food systems, renewable energy, and the environment than  qualified graduates to fill them.

The beauty of agriculture is that it has a wide variety of jobs to choose from. Research in agriculture is growing continuously and the sector needs new and talented employees to be ready to fill positions and be the next generation of agriculture specialists. One such upcoming field is that of gene editing, which has existed in the ecosystem for generations and is now being advanced to overcome current challenges in agriculture.
Farmers and more recently plant breeders have been working to improve plant traits, to produce better yielding crops that are more nutritious. The genetic improvement of crops to enhance our food started with farmers domesticating and selecting seeds from top-performing plants as early as 8000 BC.
For many years, farmers and scientists have used an array of tools to improve our crops. Over time, with the use of ancient knowledge and cutting-edge technologies, plant breeding has become more precise and efficient. Plant biotechnologists continue to find new techniques each day to develop new varieties of crops, tailored to meet the needs of farmers and consumers.
Gene editing allows us to silence or alter existing genes in plants to produce desirable traits such as improving disease resistance in plants without introducing foreign DNA in the final product. This technology is gaining credence and will help strengthen consumers’ confidence in the safety of our food, while enhancing environmental sustainability at the same time.
Among the exciting possibilities of gene editing is the development of disease and pest resistant crops that could help reduce our reliance on the use of chemical pesticides in farming. Further, this technology also holds immense possibilities in developing crops with high resilience to climate change factors such as drought and  flooding. Gene editing will also help us to develop foods with enhanced nutrition and to remove toxins and allergens from the current food.
Our youth thus can look forward to a world of transformed agriculture which would overcome many challenges facing current farmers especially the need to produce more food without degrading our vital natural resources such as soil, air and water.

These issues are relevant to our youth and they must aim to work towards overcoming them by taking up agriculture-related professions.

I believe that the sky is the limit for young people in India wanting to pursue a career in agriculture. In addition to being a farmer, options such as becoming an agri- lawyer, agriengineer, agri- capitalist, agri-researcher or a biotechnologist, are a few more specific areas in which today’s youth can look at excelling in:
 Research on new crop varieties which are resilient to climate change
 Drones in agriculture
 Artificial intelligence as farm help
 Precision agriculture
 Farm apps
 Driverless tractors and 3D sensors

Without doubt, the opportunities are many. We need to recognise this and ensure that our youth play a pivotal role in transforming the ecosystem and sensitizing society towards accepting innovations with open arms.

Dr Channa S Prakash, Professor, Tuskegee University, USA