What inspires plant scientists and why is their job so important? Esther Ngumbi explains:
Why did you want to be a plant scientist?
I was born in a small rural farming community on the Kenyan Coast. At the age of 7, I was introduced to farming. My parents, who were teachers and farmers, gave me a strip of land along the river, on which I planted cabbages. Every day I went to watch their progress, and slowly the cabbages came up, green and vibrant. Then one day the rains came, and kept coming, and the river rose higher and higher, until it flooded out the cabbages and destroyed my small farm patch.
Growing up, I witnessed and experienced firsthand challenges that many farmers face. We depended on rain fed agriculture and farmed on soils that were unhealthy. We battled insect pests and plant diseases often ending up with no harvest. Farming was our livelihood and we kept at it, no matter the challenges.
The challenges and obstacles I experienced at a young age inspired me to pursue a career in agriculture. It inspired me to pursue a career that would allow me to contribute meaningful solutions that help farmer’s grow food amidst a changing climate and many other challenges they face.
Can you explain what your job involves?
I have the best job in the world. I am in the business of discovery and I love it, I just love it. My research evaluates the potential of beneficial soil microbes to promote growth and enhance tolerance to drought stress in multiple crops, grass and pasture systems. This works by sampling crops and grasses (and their associated microbiome) that appear to be thriving amid stands that are otherwise severely drought stressed. We identify strains that increase crop growth while providing multiple benefits associated with beneficial soil bacteria, including improving soil fertility, strengthening plant defenses against insect pests and diseases, and enhancing drought tolerance.
Can you describe the importance of these microbes to farmers?
Beneficial soil bacteria occur naturally in the soil. The cool thing about them is that they form mutually beneficial associations with plants such as maize, tomatoes and peppers, making soils more fertile and fending off plant stressors such as insects and diseases. They also enable plants to better tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations and other challenges that come with a changing climate.
For farmers struggling to adapt to climate change, especially small-scale farmers with limited resources, an increased yield may allow investment in more “climate-smart” farming techniques, helping conserving water and soil. As concerns about food security increase, beneficial soil bacteria could play a major role in food security, helping farmers around the world conserve water, increase yields and improve nutrition.
Why is your profession important in the challenge to feed the world?
The world’s population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. Climate change and degraded soils make feeding this growing population an increasingly complex and difficult challenge. As hunger and food insecurity concerns increase, beneficial soil bacteria and microbial inoculants offer novel solutions needed to ensure the sustainable food production.
Understanding and exploiting microbes to achieve sustainable food production and resilient agricultural systems is a rapidly developing part of agricultural biotechnology.
In the African Continent, in particular, it is hard to overemphasize the anticipated benefits from the research we are conducting. Currently, 65% of soils are degraded, costing African farmers $68 billion per year. Healthy soils are the foundation to resilient and sustainable agricultural systems. Resilient agricultural systems will allow Africa to grow the crops it needs to feed its population and hence contribute to the eradication of hunger.
What inspires you about your job?
The growing need to find sustainable solutions to feed our expanding population. It gives me great joy to be doing research that has practical implications.
Esther is a Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, Alabama, United States.