Grantham Scholar Gareth Owen is researching sustainable crop protection strategies using RNA.
Plant pests and diseases are estimated to lessen crop yields by 20-40% each year leading to weakened food security across the globe.
It is estimated that 2 billion people were affected by moderate to severe food insecurity in 2019 and the demand for food is expected to increase in line with the growing global population set to reach 9 billion within the next 40 years. The current ease of global transport and travel, coupled with climate change, have brought an increased spread of pest species and crop diseases leading to increased strain on current crop protection strategies. As little as a one-degree rise in temperatures could see an increase in losses of the major food crops corn, rice and wheat by 10-25% and an increase in two degrees could see a predicted loss of 214 million tons of produce.
The incidence of pesticide resistance has increased dramatically since the 1950s and the use of pesticides globally has been in decline since 2007 due to tighter regulations and public opinion pressures originating from concerns about their safety and their negative effect on biodiversity. These factors have brought a growing demand for more sustainable and innovative alternatives to traditional agrochemicals. The use of double-stranded RNA, for targeted sequence-specific gene inhibition through RNA interference, is evolving as an important tool for the development of sustainable crop protection strategies. Its ability to target individual pest species and diseases reduces the need for non-specific pesticides and can prevent unintentional effects such as the mortality of beneficial pollinator species.