Genomics closely linked not just to crop productivity, but also to nutrition and health

Original Post: ICRISAT Happenings

Online lecture connects the dots between genomics, nutrition and health

Dr Varshney delivering an online lecture ‘Genomics for health and nutrition’. Photo: CEGSB, ICRISAT

Crop diversification, genomics-assisted breeding and understanding the role of the gut microbiome is crucial in lowering the risks of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), increasing crop productivity, transitioning from nutrition-relevant to nutrition-sensitive agronomy and improving overall immunity and health. These were the main takeaway messages from a recent online lecture ‘Genomics for nutrition and health’.

Delivering the lecture, Dr Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, ICRISAT, shared an interesting fact, that of the 30,000 estimated plant species that can be used for food, just 30 provide most of the world’s calories and nutrients, and of these only three (rice, wheat and maize) provide 40% of the global daily calorie intake. Citing the multiple challenges of malnutrition across the world, Dr Varshney called for urgent interventions to diversify the staples and increase the intake of nutrient-rich food such as whole coarse grains and pulses. He highlighted the importance of ICRISAT’s Smart Food initiative ( in this regard.

Key points:

Agriculture is the key towards healthier diets and reducing non-communicable diseases.

Dietary diversification can lower the risk of non-communicable diseases and malnutrition.

Genomics-assisted breeding can successfully and substantially increase crop productivity and farmer income.

Understanding the role of gut microbiome corrective diets is crucial for curbing malnutrition and non-communicable diseases.

Human gut microbiota function is not only critical for nutrient absorption from food, but also for maintaining overall health.

Dr Varshney shared experiences and success stories on how genomics-assisted plant breeding increased the efficacy and speed of breeding programs, with greater pest and disease resistance and tolerance to environmental stresses, improved productivity, increased nutritional values and enhanced the sustainability of production systems. ICRISAT has excellent facilities for genotyping and genome sequencing to support genomic breeding programs, he said, stating that his team and partners had produced and published the genomes of pigeonpea (2012), chickpea (2013), pearl millet (2017), the wild ancestors and cultivated forms of groundnut (2016 and 2019) as well as haplotype maps of pigeonpea (2017) and chickpea (2019). The better understanding of functional genomics coupled with marker-assisted breeding techniques, greatly increases the efficiency of plant breeding in these crops and thereby its production and productivity.

Dr Varshney also highlighted ICRISAT’s work under strategic research initiative “Systems Biology” on studying iron deficiency in adolescent girls, severe and acute malnutrition in children under five, and Type-2 diabetes in adults and pre-diabetics. These studies would help to better understand the role of the gut microbiome on nutrition intake and better health.

The lecture was delivered as part of a webinar conducted by Amity Institute of Organic Agriculture, Amity University, Noida on 5 May 2020, which was attended by more than 570 participants.

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