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K-State Today

March 3, 2020

K-State celebrates International Year of Plant Health: Plant Health for Healthy Humans

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

"Tomato, tomahto." Either way you say it, Kansas State University researchers are studying ways to improve the nutritional quality of the food we eat, including vegetables and staple crops. 

As the world celebrates 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health, declared by the United Nations, K-State is highlighting research efforts that bring awareness to the importance of plants and their role in sustaining life. The American Phytopathological Society has identified monthly themes related to plant health to promote discussion throughout the year. K-State has a tremendous array of scientific strength in plant health and plant sciences across multiple colleges and departments. Though 2020 is the official International Year of Plant Health, every year at K-State features critical research, education and extension on this topic. 

Davina Rhodes, assistant professor of nutritional genomics in the agronomy department, and C.B. Rajashekar, professor in the horticulture and natural resources department, both study the nutrients in plants and how to increase them, which could help combat malnutrition and chronic and degenerative diseases. Their research fits the theme, "Plant Health for Healthy Humans." 

Rhodes developed the first Nutritional Genomics Research Lab at K-State. According to Rhodes, the lab’s mission is to improve human nutrition and food security by increasing the nutritional quality of crops through breeding or biotechnology, known as biofortification. 

"My vision for the future is to have a world in which every person has access to nutrient-dense staple crops," Rhodes said. 

Rhodes studies genetic controls and bioavailability, or the amount of nutrient that is digested, absorbed and used by the body, to increase carotenoids in sorghum grain. 

"Carotenoids are orange, yellow, and red plant pigments — such as the red in tomatoes or the orange in carrots — that provide many health benefits to humans, including acting as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories," she said. 

Sorghum is a major staple crop around the world, particularly in regions with high rates of vitamin A deficiency, Rhodes said. 

"If we can boost the carotenoid concentrations in sorghum, then we can help to improve the vitamin A status and health of people around the world," she said. 

Rhodes said this is a critical part of the solution to malnutrition and other nutrition-related disorders. 

"One in three people in the world are malnourished," Rhodes said. "The world needs to produce more food and more nutritious food at a faster rate than ever before. Biofortification is a cost-effective and sustainable approach to helping build a food-secure future." 

Rajashekar studies ways to improve phytochemicals, which are the health-promoting compounds produced by plants, in fruits and vegetables. 

"We depend on plants for many nutrients, which are essential for our survival and good health," Rajashekar said. "These important compounds are known for reducing the risk of numerous chronic and degenerative diseases including heart disease, cancers, diabetes, dementia and more." 

Rajashekar’s research focus has been to improve the nutritional quality of commonly consumed fruits and vegetables such as leafy vegetables and tomatoes through various environmental factors and crop management practices. 

"We have found that mild environmental stresses such as water stress and high light intensity can significantly enhance the health-promoting phytochemicals in leafy vegetables," Rajashekar said. 

Red, blue and UV light also play a critical role in the accumulation of essential nutrients such as protein, mineral nutrients and many phytochemicals in leafy vegetables and tomatoes, he said. 

"Therefore, one can control the light intensity and quality of light under field conditions especially in high tunnel and greenhouse production of food," Rajashekar said. 

According to Rajashekar, high tunnel production is rapidly gaining popularity because it can extend the growing season, and improve the aesthetical quality of crops, compared to crops grown in the open field. But he said the nutritional quality may decrease in high tunnels and greenhouses because of reduced light intensity and altered quality of light. 

He is also evaluating several poly-covers to be used in high tunnels in the field. 

"The main objective is to identify poly-covers that allow optimal spectral quality and intensity so that we can enhance yield and nutritional and aesthetic quality in leafy vegetables and tomatoes," Rajashekar said. 

The International Year of Plant Health is a special opportunity to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment and boost economic development. Follow the campaign on social media using the hashtags #PlantHealth and #IYPH2020.