The Personal Touch

Have you ever wondered how different a farmer’s life would be if only plants could talk? If this were the case, plants could tell farmers what they really need, when they need it. However, this still remains in the realm of fantasy, and it may stay there for good.Forward-thinking farmers are constantly coming up with ways to make crops, and the methods used to grow them, better. Personalized agriculture is a concept that has been bounced around in the search for the agricultural golden mean. The problem with today’s agricultural model is that there is only one model for every plant, making it a one-size-fits-all model. For the environment, this has several repercussions. First, this model requires large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and water, which can cause runoff and pollute surrounding bodies of water—not to mention the destruction it can cause to aquatic life and to us if we drink the contaminated water. Second, irrigation, which is needed to provide the large demand for water, can damage soil structure if saline or high-sodium water is used. Finally, there are the issues of soil erosion and contamination that contribute largely to overall land degradation.

The challenges facing farmers are many and can be overwhelming, but the real challenge for both agricultural scientists and farmers is reintroducing biodiversity in today’s farms, in light of the current agricultural model. Personalized agriculture, as a concept, contradicts the status quo by introducing the concept of the personalized farm. According to Reid Williams, a PhD candidate at the University of California, “Plants sense their environment and exhibit sophisticated responses—the idea is to engineer that.” Plants can actually sense touch, gravity, and other environmental factors; however, these factors affect all living things more intimately than is generally known. Living things encode environmental information through a process called DNA methylation. The expression of methylated DNA changes during the life of an organism—and the key lies in determining which genes have been affected by this process.

Personalized agriculture can provide benefits for both green farmers and consumers, but the question remains: Is personalized agriculture organic? Personalized farming would mean synthetic “personalized seeds” genetically modified and designed to adapt to the environment in which they are to be planted. While this poses several benefits, the jury is still out on whether genetically-assisted agriculture can be considered organic or natural. For now, we can only hope that the agricultural golden mean is not too far away.

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