Researchers: L. Carpenter-Boggs, I. Chowdhury, C. Coyne, M. Islam, R. McGee, S. Roje
Contact: Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, firstname.lastname@example.org, 509-335-1553
Arsenic (As) poses a significant threat to humans and ecosystems worldwide. Arsenic in soil and water reduces plant growth, agricultural crop yields, and animal health. By damaging both quantity and quality of crops and livestock products, arsenic contamination reduces nutritional and food security. Humans ingest contaminated food crops and water, causing arsenic poisoning and early death.
Arsenic causes an array of skin ailments, cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurological effects. The worst human arsenic exposure in history is underway in the Bengal Delta of Bangladesh and eastern India. It is estimated that one in five deaths in Bangladesh is currently caused or hastened by arsenic poisoning. The World Health Organization calls this “the largest mass poisoning in history.”
The most common foods in Bangladesh are rice, lentils, wheat, and milk (particularly for infants and children). In many households rice and lentils are eaten at every meal. Crop residues including rice straw and lentil straw are the primary feed for livestock. Thus, arsenic in these crops also contaminates dairy and meat products. Systemic contamination of farms worsens as cows given arsenic-rich water produce arsenic-rich urine, and cows fed arsenic-rich straw produce arsenic-rich manures that are applied to soil as fertilizer. In this way, arsenic concentrates in topsoil and in the food chain of farm families and the markets they serve. Drinking water quality has improved in some areas with new wells, but soils and crops remain a long-term source of arsenic poisoning.
Climate change threatens to worsen the problem. Historically, fresh water flowing from mountain snow diluted and flushed out the arsenic in lowland surface water. With smaller snow packs and more water demand upstream, arsenic is becoming increasingly concentrated in the Bengal Delta. Climate change thereby exacerbates this systemic problem.
The interdisciplinary research team (including USDA-ARS scientists) at Washington State University can address the interlinked problems of soil, water, and crop contamination. We are already cooperating with two universities in Bangladesh on Phase 1 activities. Private sector linkages with community partners and the crop seed industries in both Washington State and Bangladesh exist currently. These linkages will bring new crop varieties, treatments, and technologies developed through this program to market quickly.
This complex issue calls for multi-pronged action. APLAI focuses research, design, and market interventions to dramatically lower human As intake in the Bengal Delta. APLAI proposes three primary prongs of research and action in three phases.
- Crop Improvement: develop, validate, and deliver varieties of low-arsenic lentils, which reduce the entry of As into human and livestock food chains.
- Biofertilization: identify and amend soils with symbiotic fungi, biochar, iron amendments, and specialized compost that reduce arsenic uptake by crops.
- Water filtration: compare current and develop new filters for long-term clean water supply.
Phases 1 and 2 of the program can be run concurrently. Phases 1 and 2 are a 5-year, $5 million (plus F&A) endeavor. Phase 3 is 2 years and $3 million (plus F&A).
Phase 1: Assess current genetic and technical resources. Low-hanging fruit for immediate benefits.
- The global genetic banks of lentils will be screened to identify current varieties and breeding materials that uptake less As and translocate very low As to the grain. We are using global collections conserved by USDA Western Regional Plant Introduction Station and International Center for Agricultural Development in Dry Areas (ICARDA).
- In cases where current varieties produce well with low As accumulation, these can be immediately promoted through business, social, and Extension networks.
- Because of our industry connections, high As uptake varieties can be removed from the market.
Inoculants and soil amendments
- Beneficial mycorrhizal fungi form symbioses with plant roots and greatly reduce arsenic uptake by plants. Screen the INVAM international collection for the best mycorrhizal fungi to reduce arsenic uptake by lentils, other grain legumes, and herbs and greens that often have extremely high levels of As.
- Green vegetables and poultry are commonly grown in home gardens and smaller fields. In these limited areas, soil treatment with iron- and biochar- amendments will be used to reduce As bioavailability and uptake. Effects on As uptake by lettuce will be assessed.
Better, cheaper water filters
- The WSU team has partnered with a small business developer of the inexpensive Freedom Filter. One $50 unit can treat drinking and cooking water for 250 people for a year, and annual maintenance costs $10. This is far less than Sono filters and other currently available filters. Units will be installed at schools, mosques, and community centers in target communities for immediate water treatment and real-world testing. Combine installations with public education and expanded community partnerships about minimizing As exposure.
Phase 2: Research for crop and product improvement.
- Using information from Phase 1, along with currently available genetic resources for lentil, identify possible genes and markers of low arsenic accumulation. Begin lentil breeding, a multi-year effort to stabilize desired traits including low arsenic.
- Evaluate lentil plant mechanisms for low arsenic uptake. Biochemical molecules and paths known to reduce arsenic in other plants will be assessed in lentils, including phosphate transport, phytochelation, and glutathione synthesis.
- Develop bioinformatics and other tools that improve ease of use for lentil breeders to interpret genetic markers and predict useful genes.
Field test inoculants
- Using the best inoculants and soil amendment materials from Phase 1, conduct field testing in Bangladesh to assess real-world effectiveness and lifespan.
Improve water filters
- Field results of the Freedom Filter will be compared to other current and emerging technologies for low-cost filtration systems. Filters that utilize local biochar and high-oxide clays will be compared to other options by cost and effectiveness.
- Toward ever improving technologies, WSU will develop nanocarbon based filter materials for arsenic removal from water.
Phase 3: Training, commercialization, outreach.
Phase 3 uses what has been learned in Phases 1 and 2 to rapidly increase the use of the best tools, materials, varieties, and technologies by international researchers, students, extension agents, educators, businesses, and communities. Aspects of Phase 3 will happen concurrently with Phases 1 and 2. An additional period of 2 years and $3 million (plus F&A) will dramatically increase the rate and depth of education and adoption of the results of the research program, to save and improve more lives faster.
- Complete development of low-arsenic lentils and increase rate of further crop improvement using new genetic informational tools. Breeder-friendly genetic tools, and improved germplasm developed in Phase 2 will be deployed to Bangladeshi and Indian crop breeders and graduate students through trainings. Strengthen partnerships with researchers and seed companies, so that new varieties can be commercialized quickly after their release.
- Ensure in-country production and availability of inoculants and amendments that reduce arsenic in food and feed crops. The BARI institute in Bangladesh produces limited mycorrhizal inoculants in Bangladesh. The strains proven by Phase 1 and 2 research to best reduce arsenic uptake by crops will be incorporated into BARI production. Provide trainings on use and management of best biofertilization strains and materials.
- Partner with commercial and community entities to ensure production, availability, use, and long-term care of effective water filters. Train students in filtration technologies.
Through a multi-year, multi-pronged, and multi-agency approach, APLAI can rapidly identify and apply a thorough arsenic remediation program to dramatically reduce human intake of arsenic in the Bengal Delta to a safe intake level using commercially feasible solutions. Given a current estimate of 43,000 deaths annually from arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh alone, and likely three times this level in India, the human benefit will be substantial. However, arsenic toxicity does not clear from the system rapidly and deaths from current pollution will continue through the current generations. However, by dramatically and rapidly reducing intake, APLAI is estimated save 30,000 lives annually in 2025-2035, and up to 100,000 lives annually into the future.