Farmers are brilliant problem solvers. They have to be. Nonetheless, they solve problems best when they can see and measure them, and when they have options to respond to them within their constraints. For most of the world’s rural people, these constraints are almost always associated with poverty and neglect, not a lack of ingenuity, motivation or commitment.

Key challenges in agriculture, such as wise use of nutrients or protection from pests, are often best solved by management choices made by farmers, themselves. These challenges can only be confronted, however, when they are known and when solutions can be crafted and locally chosen.

Science has made great strides in understanding some of these challenges, but the knowledge alone does not provide capacity to address them. Knowledge must be converted into action, and to be sustainable and equitable, this conversion must be accessible to resource-poor people.

There is now a unique opportunity to use new technology to couple the creativity of farmers with new tools to forecast and measure their constraints in a timely and affordable manner. Then, as communities of innovators, they can craft their own options for improving their production systems.

We propose to rethink biotechnology radically, countering the sociological disempowerment of rendering farmers passive recipients, not active innovators. We propose an open, collaborative process to develop and share biological technology to engineer plants, not as short-term moneymakers, but as living instruments to monitor natural resources. These technologies do not lend themselves to substantial profit incentives for their creators, because the user and beneficiary is the local farmer.

This project brings together novel elements in the scientific literature to create a new proof of concept for worldwide rice cultivation. Abiosentinel or bioindicator is an engineered plant that senses an important constraint, limiting nutrition or threatening pests, and sends a specific signal. The signal could be a change in the morphology of the leaves, a bright color, or even a smell that relates to a soil deficiency or a cryptic fungus.

The project seeks co-development by widespread members of the scientific community of bioindicator components from which the modules can be chosen locally by farmers and breeders. The components may be patented by their owners, but by participating in this project the owners are declaring their intention that both research and commercial uses will be licensed in a way that allows their unconstrained use for this purpose. The modules can be used in various combinations and in other crops as appropriate, so that the results are sustained and usable well past the end of the project.

This revolutionary use of biotechnology shows a potential to effect a dramatic change in how science is incorporated into social agendas. It puts local-scale, informed decision-making in the hands of those experiencing problems and committed to their sustainable solution.