In the face of the combined challenges of climate change and COVID-19, reliable access to accurate information about crop health has never been more crucial. Dr Michael Humber at the University of Maryland is the Data Lead of the NASA Harvest project – a global collaboration of researchers from many different backgrounds, who are aiming to provide this data using advanced satellite-based technologies. His team’s work has already had an important impact on systems that warn farmers of likely crop failures before they occur, and could be vital for ensuring global food security in the coming decades.
Advancements in genetic technologies have made precise gene editing a reality. Used extensively to develop crops that exhibit higher yields and resistance to pests and diseases, genetic modification could also transform livestock production. Building on decades of animal cloning research, Dr Mark Westhusin from the Reproductive Sciences Laboratory at Texas A&M University is using genetic and reproductive technologies to improve livestock for food, medicine, and medical research.
As complex living organisms, plants can often display intricate interactions with the air inside and around them. So far, however, many characteristics of these processes have gone largely unexplored. In their research, Charlotte Coates and Dr Peter Kevan at the University of Guelph combine field surveys with advanced imaging technologies to study the ‘micrometeorology’ that takes place in and around the stems and flowers of many plants. Their discoveries are shedding new light on how these plants grow and reproduce, and how some species are providing ideal habitats for ecologically damaging insects.
At least 820 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition globally and human population growth is likely to exacerbate this problem in the future. It is becoming increasingly important to develop sustainable and efficient methods to meet food demands. To address this global issue, Dr Sanju A. Sanjaya and Bagyalakshmi Muthan from West Virginia State University and their colleagues from Michigan State University have developed genetic technologies to improve the nutritional and energy content of crops. Their technology could increase production and improve profitability and sustainability across a range of important crop plants.
Domestic herbivores – such as cattle, sheep, and goats – are remarkably important to ecosystems. Their feeding behaviours aid the management of natural habitats by preventing any individual plant species dominating the landscape. Thus, understanding livestock dietary preferences is vital for informing land management decisions. Dr John Walker from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center has devoted his career to exploring livestock dietary preferences, and how they can be manipulated to benefit rangelands. His ‘Aggie Cedar Eater’ (ACE) goats are now helping to control invasive juniper shrubs across the Great Plains of the US.
How to support the expanding human population is one of the greatest societal challenges in the 21st century. To meet the demand for food, fuel and fibre, agricultural productivity will need to dramatically increase. However, to ensure long-term sustainability and resilience, increased productivity must not sacrifice the health of the surrounding ecosystems. Led by Dr Dennis Busch and Dr Andrew Cartmill, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Agro-Ecosystem Research Program draws on the expertise of local and international collaborating scientists and farmers to develop alternative agricultural practices that support sustainable intensification for future food security.
The bacteria that causes fire blight in apple and pear trees is notoriously difficult to control without antibiotics. With new regulations in the US preventing antibiotic use in organic orchards after 2014, organic farmers faced an impossible choice – lose their organic certification or risk the death of their trees. Working against the clock, plant pathologist Dr Kenneth Johnson from Oregon State University accelerated his efforts to provide organic farmers with another option. With his team of researchers and outreach specialists, he developed and evaluated non-antibiotic management strategies for fire blight in organic apple and pear orchards.
Malnutrition, occurring as either a lack of food or not eating enough of the right types of food, is a significant concern in many African countries, particularly for children. To address this issue, Dr Marlyse Leng and her colleagues at the University of Douala in Cameroon have recently developed a nutritious weaning food for infants, made from an endangered yam species to increase its production and use. After processing the yam with other key nutrients into an optimised formulation, they explored the food’s nutrient availability and antioxidant activity in comparison to other products.
Food insecurity directly impacts a third of the world’s population and perpetuates a cycle of hunger and malnutrition that is inherited through generations. Previous relief efforts have largely been donor-focused, providing only temporary solutions. To break the cycle of food insecurity, poverty, and hunger, relief efforts must empower communities and facilitate real transformative changes. Professor James Simon of Rutgers University and colleagues have developed a transferable horticulture model that builds upon local ecosystem knowledge and cultural infrastructures while embedding science-driven, market-first, and value chain methodologies. Introduced into several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the model includes agribusiness and technical skills training to strengthen the participation of farmers and local entrepreneurs, particularly women and youth, in profitable value chains. Using this novel approach, the Rutgers team and their African colleagues have successfully demonstrated how horticulture can contribute to a real reduction in poverty and malnutrition, while fostering job creation, pride and creativity.
Modern industrial agriculture has helped farmers meet rising food demands, but these practices are contributing to a range of environmental problems. Regenerative agriculture holds promising solutions that could help to restore and maintain healthy ecosystems and contribute to climate change mitigation, while keeping pace with food demands and enhancing farmers’ resilience to environmental stressors. Through her research, Dr Hannah Gosnell aims to understand what motivates cattle and sheep farmers – also known as ranchers – to adopt and sustain the use of regenerative practices and what challenges must be navigated. Her work is informing efforts that encourage farmers to transition to these methods.
Farmers in the East Coast of the US are struggling to compete against the larger farms of other regions. Coupled with rising production costs and increasingly difficult growing conditions, producing conventional commodity crops is no longer viable for these farms. Switching to speciality and niche ethnic crops could help these farmers break into a growing market, improve profitability and future viability – and help fulfil the needs of ethnic communities. Dr Ramu Govindasamy from Rutgers University uses a market-first approach to investigate and develop opportunities for farmers to transition to ethnic crop production.
Enzymes make life as we know it possible. These active proteins are vital in nutrient cycling, metabolism, and cell functioning. With their diverse range of functions and ubiquity, enzymes could offer techniques to support healthy agricultural ecosystems, and as such, improve sustainability and future food security. Understanding their activities is vital to the organic agriculture revolution. Dr Zachary Senwo and his team at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University have contributed years of important research to uncover the potential of enzymes towards informing novel agricultural practices.
First recognised over a century ago, the resistance of insects and other arthropods to pesticides is a growing problem, with implications for crop production and human health on a global scale. Dr David Mota-Sanchez and his team at Michigan State University are creating a worldwide, online database of resistance cases to catalogue the scale of the problem. Their work will aid decision makers in developing sustainable strategies to manage arthropod pests.
Climate change and environmental degradation are increasingly threatening our ability to feed a burgeoning human population. Switching to agricultural practices that support beneficial soil microbes, and thus healthy soils, may help farmers achieve the yields required for continued food security. Dr Zachary Senwo from the College of Agriculture, Life and Natural Sciences at Alabama A&M University has spent over two decades exploring how agricultural management practices impact soil health. In an extensive new project, his team is investigating soil nitrogen cycling and the role of microbes in soil health.
Genetically modified crops can offer a range of environmental and health benefits, such as reduced usage of chemical pesticides, improved farm efficiency and crop yields, and an enhanced nutritional profile. Despite this, fears surrounding genetic modification have led to a lack of acceptance of these foods by many consumers, regulators, and governmental organisations. Dr Richard Goodman from the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is helping to shift the narrative around genetically modified crops, through his extensive work evaluating their safety.
Sweet basil is among the most popular and economically important culinary herbs, but by 2010, US production began to feel the impact of a newly emerging destructive disease: basil downy mildew. At that time, no sweet basil varieties were resistant to basil downy mildew and growers began relying heavily on fungicide application to avoid devastating crop losses. Dr James Simon at Rutgers University had been researching basil for 25 years and was eager to tackle this problem. Eight years later, Dr Simon’s team is proud to have successfully developed 12 new downy mildew resistant varieties of sweet basil and two varieties resistant to fusarium wilt disease.
More than 80% of agricultural land in the US is managed by farmers whose operations fall between small-scale farms with direct access to local markets, and larger industrialised farms. These farmers in the ‘middle’ increasingly struggle to find a place within the larger food production system. Through his work as part of the ‘Agriculture of the Middle’ Initiative, Dr Thomas Gray of the Rural Business-Cooperative Service at the US Department of Agriculture has been studying different types of cooperative structures for best adaptability to socio-economic and food consumption patterns for mid-size farm survival.
Intensive livestock farming has contributed to environmental degradation across the globe, and is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. However, meeting the protein demands of a growing global population requires further increases in the food supply. Dr Luis Tedeschi and his team from Texas A&M University and Texas A&M AgriLife Research have been studying the sustainable intensification of livestock production, utilising modelling-based approaches. They consider whether these tools can be used to increase production efficiency while minimising environmental impacts, helping to preserve and regenerate the natural resources that form the basis of the industry, for future generations.
In recent decades, advancements in agricultural practices have made the large-scale production of cheap and nutritious food possible. However, these practices are often damaging to the environment, making them unsustainable in the long term. Technology is now sufficiently developed that many of these environmental impacts can be reduced or mitigated, by using ‘big data’ to inform farming management decisions. Dr Bruno Basso from Michigan State University and his network of researchers have been exploring how digital technologies could usher in a new era of sustainable agriculture that balances competing economic and social interests while minimising trade-offs.
Founded in 1947, the British Society of Soil Science (BSSS) is an international membership organisation and charity dedicated to the study of soil in its widest aspects. Funded through subscriptions and income from its publications, BSSS is a platform for exchanging ideas and representing the views of soil scientists to decision-making bodies. The Society stimulates research by hosting conferences and publishing two scientific journals, and promotes education through a number of initiatives in schools, colleges and universities. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Professor Sacha Mooney, President of BSSS, who describes the great importance of soil science research, and the varied ways that the Society advances this diverse and fascinating field.
Salmonella remains the leading pathogen of food safety concern in the US, with poultry being the main vector. For many years, poultry producers have relied on antibiotics to curtail the prevalence of pathogens in their flocks. However, consumer concerns and the rise of antimicrobial resistance are leading to the withdrawal of antibiotics, leaving farmers in unchartered territory. Dr Adelumola Oladeinde at the US Department of Agriculture is collaborating with researchers from the University of Georgia and Colorado State University to develop novel techniques for reducing Salmonella in chickens. Their work focuses on preventing infection and predicting risk in antibiotic-free production.
Climate change is already having devastating effects felt across the globe. Without adequate measures to counteract the human drivers behind climate change, these negative consequences are guaranteed to increase in severity in the coming decades. Esteemed biomedical scientist, Dr Charles DeLisi of Boston University, urges that a multi-disciplinary approach to mitigating climate change is vital. Using predictive modelling, he has demonstrated the potential power of genetically engineering plants to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby mitigating climate change.
Insect pests cause devastating economic losses in agriculture, and as vectors of disease they have significant impact on the health of humans, livestock and pets. Plant essential oils have been used for centuries as protection against insect pests, but scientists have only recently begun to explore the extent of their potential for pest control. Dr Joel R. Coats and his team at Iowa State University’s Department of Entomology have been investigating essential oils as greener alternatives to conventional pesticides, and as a vital tool for overcoming pesticide resistance in insect populations.
Peanuts are a nutritious and sustainable food staple in many regions across the globe, as well as being enjoyed for their rich flavour. As such, the peanut industry is continually striving to improve peanut crops and the methods used to produce our favourite peanut-based foods. Dr Lisa Dean and her team at USDA-ARS have been investigating the flavours, nutritional compositions and physical properties of peanuts, with the aim of helping peanut growers and food manufacturers enhance the quality of the peanuts produced in the USA.
Agricultural weeds have the potential to cause significant crop loss. As such, conventional weed management practices have aimed to keep crop fields free from weeds through the broad application of herbicides. However, these practices have damaging consequences on the surrounding environment. Dr Rakesh Chandran and his team in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Department of West Virginia University have developed a more sustainable herbicide application regime that allows weeds to coexist with corn crops at acceptable levels, with the aim of improving environmental health without significantly sacrificing crop yield.
The alarming decline of pollinating insects in recent years has garnered a wave of interest from the media, scientists and the public. This has resulted in a wealth of research into pollinator conservation, but despite this, adoption of beneficial practices that support pollinators has been low amongst private landholders. Dr Shannon Westlake and Dr Kevin Hunt of Mississippi State University have been investigating the human elements behind pollinator conservation, with the aim of developing targeted outreach and support programs to improve the uptake of conservation efforts amongst landholders.
The HoChunk people of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska traditionally enjoyed a close connection with their environment, which has gradually become fractured due to increased urbanisation. The community has become reliant upon external producers for nearly all of its food requirements, and the health of its members is suffering as a result. In an effort to reconnect people with the land, a project coordinated by former Tribal Council member, Vincent Bass, and Brian Mathers of the HoChunk Community Development Corporation, aims to maximise the use of local resources to produce healthy, sustainable, culturally-appropriate food. Their ultimate goal is to achieve food sovereignty for the Winnebago Tribe.
Plant pathogens transmitted by insect vectors can have devastating consequences for farmers across the globe. Huanglongbing disease of citrus trees and zebra chip disease of potatoes are both caused by bacteria transmitted by specific psyllid insect species, and have the potential to destroy entire crops, causing enormous economic losses. Conventional control methods rely on pesticides, but these can have adverse effects on the environment. In addition, resistance to these chemicals is on the rise in many pest species. Dr Bryce Falk and his plant pathology team at the University of California, Davis aim to solve this problem by developing highly targeted psyllid control methods using virus-based gene technologies.
Genetic technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with scientists now able to precisely insert beneficial genes into plant genomes and accurately predict the activity of the new genes in the host plant. However, public acceptance has not kept up with the technological advancements in this field. Dr James G. Thomson and his team at the USDA’s Western Regional Research Center have developed Lilac Limes using this advanced genetic technology. This striking purple fruit could help to open dialogue with consumers and encourage greater acceptance of the use of genetic technology in food plants.
Wine is a firm favourite at dinner tables everywhere, but keeping up with consumer demand is becoming increasingly difficult as the incidence and severity of drought increases. While previous irrigation systems have helped maintain grape yield and quality, they are hindered by multiple disadvantages. Dr Pete Jacoby and his team at Washington State University have developed an improved system called Direct Root-Zone irrigation, which combats many of the limitations of previous systems. With the efficacy confirmed, they aim to make their irrigation system available to growers in wine-producing regions across the globe.
The milk output of the Puerto Rican dairy industry has remained static over the last 30 years, despite improvements in the genetics of cows. With the quality of forage being a key limitation to milk production on the Island, Dr Teodoro Ruiz and his team from the University of Puerto Rico have been investigating the effects of alternative forage crops on milk yield. They are also evaluating the productivity of Puerto Rican ‘pelón’ Holstein cows, with the overall aim of developing strategies to improve milk production under tropical conditions.
In certain areas of the US, local berry growers face difficulties in meeting the growing customer demand for high-quality berries, while also managing pests in sustainable ways. Aware of these challenges, researchers from different universities, including Michigan State, Penn State and Cornell Universities have been collaborating on a project called TunnelBerries. Their aim is to conduct research related to berry growing and provide berry crop producers with useful information, paving the way towards the use of forward-looking practices.