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Phosphate Smart Agriculture

Phosphorous deserves attention as this is not only the backbone of our DNA but also the key to global food security, environment, and peace.

Photo of Jaswinder Singh

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

McGill University

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Punjab Agricultural University, IPNI Canada, Lakehead University Agricultural Research Station- Thunder Bay, Fertilizer Association of India UM6P, Morocco Memorial University of Newfoundland

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Just beginning now

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?


What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Beautiful and bountiful fields, fresh crisp air, a neighborly community, hardworking citizens – the food basket of the country, Punjab. If I were asked to describe a sense of home, I would tell you about the land of Punjab. I grew up in a Punjab that was a place full of opportunities, it was the state with untouched potential. One of the most influential educational institutions of the nation and its time, was born in this state - famously known at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana. From humble beginnings, this university grew to change the landscape and future of its home state. It was an incredible honor for me to begin my scientific career and graduate studies at this prestigious university. Through its vision for the future, PAU brought the green revolution to Punjab in the 1960s – introducing the double monocropping of winter wheat (kanak) and summer rice (chona / munji) to increase the grain harvest in Panjab. Over my lifetime, I have witnessed Punjab through its many transitions, overcoming obstacles & crises to leading ground-breaking discoveries. My connection to Punjab is a driving factor in my vision for its future – I hope to continue seeing this land, its people and its agricultural impact prosper in the generations to come.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Punjab is the kind of place poets romanticize and writer’s run out of vibrant adjectives to describe. Delving into the culture and its people – one can see pure heart and grit. Ranging from the greatest folk love stories, on par with the works of Shakespeare, to countless tales of hard-work and bravery – the common factors in the essence of Punjab and its people are simply honesty, passion and dedication. While the country is diverse, the majority of people living in this state are Sikhs and they speak Gurmukhi Punjabi - a rich language suited for scholars and poets alike. The people of Punjab are primarily farmers and considered very hard working people who played a big role in the green revolution in India. The phrase “farm-to-table” is very true in the context of Punjab households - the main course of every meal includes wheat pan bread (called "Roti" in their language), pulses and vegetables. Punjabi food under the name of Indian food is well known around the globe. Looking down at Punjab through bird’s eye view, one can note that the topography of Punjab is a flat surface. Agriculture is the main occupation and people have small farm holdings. Annually they grow two main crops, wheat and rice, and use a large quantity of fertilizer and water. These crops (especially rice) require a lot of water and synthetic fertilizers which is affecting agriculture drastically. In the coming years, Punjab's rural economy will be sharply deteriorated. Sustainable solutions are required for the state of Punjab to maintain the food system, health, the environment, and peace.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The major crops, wheat, and rice, grown in the Punjab state require a lot of water and fertilizers. Water is limited and this will affect agriculture in the coming years. Heavy use of synthetic fertilizers may not be sustainable. Phosphorus input is crucial for food production since all plants need an adequate supply of it for successful growth. Phosphorus deficiency will result in a reduction of crop yield. Phosphorus is essential for all living organisms. Agriculture is heavily dependent on mined phosphate rock, the only known primary source of phosphorus. In this respect, phosphorus security is emerging as one of the greatest global sustainability challenges.

Intensive cropping and animal farming side by side also creates environmental problems through the leaching of such elements. Most of the soil phosphate is bound up in organic molecules and inaccessible to plants. Mobilizing phosphate rock into the environment through an unnatural cycle has polluted many of the world’s freshwater streams. This has also created a human dependence on a single non-renewable resource. Morocco and the Western Sahara host the largest reserve representing more than 70% of global rock phosphate. It is predicted that well before we run out of phosphate, the resource may become much more expensive and it could cause political turmoil due to its unrenewable nature as well as increasing monopoly control.

Farmers may need to return to manures for agricultural productions. All farmers require fertilizers, but a large number of the world’s farmers and their families are very poor and cannot access fertilizers. Inefficient use of this fossil resource from “mine-to-field-to-fork” calls for a substantial reduction in demand through efficiency and recycling. It has been noted that the continued supply of phosphate fertilizers that underpin global food production is an imminent crisis. In the literature, arguments have been made that the remaining years of rock phosphate supply will continue to decline and all phosphorus supplies will be exhausted by 2040-2050.

Responsible farming systems and strategies, especially for phosphate smart agriculture, could save not only this agriculturally rich Punjab state but also impact global agriculture concerning food security, nutrition, environment and ultimately peace.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

In a nutshell, the solutions to the challenges presented are as follows: 

1) Phosphorus efficient/smart crop plants including Phosphate Sensing Plants (PSP)

2) Identification and designing of microbial communities, which could provide unavailable phosphate to crop plants smartly and efficiently 

3) Tweaking the genomes of food crops through appropriate and acceptable modern genetic technology preferably through non-GMO approaches

4) Discovering and designing smart phosphate transporters and introducing natural variation into crop plants through modern genetic approaches like gene-editing

5)  Initiation of collaboration between policymakers, farmers and regulators

6) Designing a sustainable phosphate farming system

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

As Punjab’s current state shows, there is a dire need for a solution that is spearheaded by responsible farming systems and strategies, especially for phosphate smart agriculture. This approach could save not only this agriculturally rich state but also impact global agriculture with respect to food security, nutrition, environment and ultimately peace. The goal isn’t to create a new future for Punjab, it is to maintain its agricultural fertility. If the solutions are delayed, the state of Punjab will face unimaginable repercussions in respect to quality of life, financial security, environmental degradation and infertile barren lands, and may end up disintegrating into a desert and warzone. However, our phosphate smart vision has potential to provide natural remedies and sustainable solutions. Introducing phosphate smart agriculture could maintain agricultural crop production and industry and could become sustainable for prolonged times and the state of Punjab continue to be considered as green, lively and prosperous.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The word “Punjab” can be broken down to two words meaning “The Land of the Five Rivers” – living up to its namesake, Punjab earned its reputation as an agriculturally rich state – becoming a primary food provider for the rest of the nation and progressing to global-player in exporting goods. The current state in Punjab shows a dire need for sustainable farming as water resources are depleting – threatening to strip Punjab of its agricultural fame and potential. Designing agricultural fields and crops focused on phosphate smart techniques may be one of the only hopes left. Phosphorus is the backbone of human DNA – and in terms of farming it aids in root and flower development and increases the rate of growth, while also storing and transferring energy. Its presence in nutrient-focused and sustainable farming practices is vital. This approach would identify microbial communities – (biome studies) which could convert the unavailable form of phosphorus to an available form. “Studies have shown that specific field management practices within croplands are a factor in phosphate and the conversion of native grassland to annual crop production appears to increase the abundance of phosphate cycling genes, which may be required in soils that are under intensive management practices. It is clear that future studies are required to be tailored to agronomic practices that directly facilitate functional genes and microbial communities for certain phosphate cycling processes (e.g., Po mineralization) to optimize phosphate efficiency”. Designing a sustainable phosphate farming system is important considering the potential shortages of rock phosphate to manufacture phosphate fertilizer. Additionally, this project may identify crop varieties which could grow efficiently in limited phosphorus conditions. There is potential to tapping the genetic diversity in primitive species and landraces as well. A proposed method to execute this approach is the use of advanced techniques such as gene editing for creating such crops that are phosphate smart. The long-term outcome of this project is to not only strengthen farming in Punjab but spark the beginning of collaboration between policymakers, farmers and regulators.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • University communication


Join the conversation:

Photo of Mumtaz Cheema

Hello Jaswinder,
I am very certain in collaborating with you on this important research.

Photo of Jaswinder Singh

Thank you! Dr. Cheema:

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