Plant health is inextricably linked to the soil. An excess of salt can affect a plant’s ability to uptake other nutrients and reduce its overall growth. For crops, reduced growth translates to lower yields. Most research on this issue focuses on growing cultivars that are salt tolerant. Dr Vanaja Kankarla inspected the problem from a different angle. Her team studied how two forage crops, alfalfa and triticale, responded to saline water. The team’s results highlight triticale’s outstanding salt tolerance and shows that saline irrigation may actually boost alfalfa yields.
Berry crops are vulnerable to numerous invasive pests, including spotted wing drosophila. These fruit flies have caused significant losses for farmers growing berries in different parts of the US, Asia, and Europe. A few years ago, Dale-Ila Riggs, the owner and operator of The Berry Patch, developed and implemented a series of exclusion netting systems that can effectively protect berry crops from spotted wing drosophila and other environmental threats, reducing the need for chemical pesticides.
Small, seemingly minor annoyances can be the final hurdles standing in the way of a good idea. Dr Rod Greder, a rancher and researcher, experienced this first-hand when studying cattle farms. Some best practices for pasture-based cattle production can be time-intensive, deterring many farmers from making the shift. Moreover, we still lack reliable scientific data that can be presented to farmers to demonstrate the economic advantages of pasture-based practices, such as intensive rotational grazing. To incentivise more farmers to make the transition to this more sustainable form of raising cattle, Dr Greder has created simple, cost-effective tools that make managing and monitoring pastures more profitable and sustainable for the rancher.
Dr Evelyn Cooper | Dr Candice Duncan – Improving Agriculture and Geoscience through Educational Initiatives
Addressing the skills shortage within scientific sectors requires a targeted approach for attracting and retaining students in STEM education. Summer Opportunities in Agricultural Research and the Environment (SOARE), SOARE: Strategic Work in Applied Geosciences (SWAG) and AgDiscovery, three innovative programs at the University of Maryland, provide a gateway for continued education, particularly for students who are traditionally under-represented in scientific fields. Implemented by Dr Evelyn Cooper, the success of the AgDiscovery and SOARE programs at the university has led to the inception of the new SOARE:SWAG program. Co-directed by Dr Candice Duncan, SOARE:SWAG focuses on students within geoscience disciplines.
Founded in 1992, the European Society of Agricultural Engineers (EurAgEng) promotes the profession of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and the people who serve it. In this exclusive interview, EurAgEng’s President, Professor Fátima Baptista, discusses how the Society supports scientists and engineers in the multi-disciplinary field of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, facilitates knowledge exchange and promotes collaboration, towards improving food security and agricultural sustainability.
Soil health is fundamental to feeding the growing human population and mitigating the most damaging effects of global climate change. Despite its importance, the complex and dynamic nature of soil means that best practices for protecting and restoring Earth’s soil are not always available. By bringing together different fields and employing innovative new techniques, Dr Christine Sprunger and her team at The Ohio State University are gaining insights on how to improve soil health and tackle some of our planet’s biggest threats.
There are three components that impact crop harvests: the genetics of the seed sown, the environment in which the crop is grown, and the inputs employed during the growing period. For most species, the genetic component is addressed through breeding programs. Breeding programs require genetic variation within the available crop population from which parental crosses are made. Breeding programs that develop elite cultivars for commodities such as maize, soybean, wheat and sorghum, have wonderful inherent genetic diversity to utilise. However, many desired traits that breeders seek are not present within existing crop populations. It is here where the tools of biotechnology can complement plant breeding programs, by introducing novel pieces of genetic variation that can impart these favourable traits.
Humans have relied on cotton’s textile fibre for nearly seven millennia. However, utilising cottonseed as food has been a long and unfulfilled goal of many plant breeders. Along with its abundant, high-quality protein, cottonseed also contains gossypol – a toxic chemical that renders the seed inedible. Cottonseed’s fate as a mostly unusable by-product seemed sealed until Dr Keerti Rathore, a professor at Texas A&M University, announced that he had successfully created gossypol-free cottonseed. Dr Rathore’s tireless devotion has given the world the potential to significantly improve food security worldwide.
To manage their farms effectively, dairy farmers must base their decisions on real-time and continuous data streams, which collect information about feeding, milking, and an array of other factors. Dairy Brain is a toolkit introduced by Dr Victor E. Cabrera and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, which integrates the data streams collected by different software onto a single platform, and applies the latest algorithms to reveal novel insights. The technology could soon enable farmers and industry professionals to make far better use of the latest techniques in data analysis – and may even lead to new advances in efficiency and sustainability.
Pesticides may be essential in ensuring abundant and healthy yields of many crops, but so far, the techniques used to spray them have led to considerable environmental damage. In his research, Dr Mark Gleason, a plant pathologist at Iowa State University, assesses the performance of new technologies that can deploy pesticides on apple trees in more efficient and less hazardous ways. These approaches enable farmers to minimise pesticide use without sacrificing crop yields. Through combining laser-based ‘LiDAR’ (light detection and ranging) technology with disease-warning systems to time sprays efficiently, his project team hopes to offer more sustainable and environmentally friendly options for apple growers.
Dr Lynn Brandenberger | Dr Joshua Massey – ‘Green Manure’: How Cover Crops Create Healthy Soils and Boost Crop Yields
In order to meet the demands of a growing human population, farmers across the globe are attempting to improve the yields and nutritional content of their crops. However, this is an especially difficult challenge, in an age where climate change is negatively impacting our agricultural systems. To address these pressing issues, Dr Lynn Brandenberger and Dr Joshua Massey of Oklahoma State University focus on the intersection of soil health and crop production. Recently, they demonstrated how cover crops can greatly improve soil health and, consequently, enhance crop yields.
The demand on agricultural systems to increase the food supply has risen sharply as the global population continues to grow. However, as agricultural systems increase productivity, they also emit more greenhouse gases and exacerbate climate change. Simultaneously meeting food supply demands and reducing environmental impact in agricultural settings is one of the most important issues of our time. Dr Marília Chiavegato of The Ohio State University has dedicated her career to studying the ecological components of agricultural ecosystems, called ‘agroecosystems’. Her team’s findings will aid the development of management practices that not only boost productivity, but also lower the environmental impact associated with conventional agriculture.
Reproductive biotechnologies have contributed to many major advances in livestock production, and the proper application of these technologies can lead to livestock with superior genetic traits. This is vitally important given the high rates of malnourishment and poverty in developing countries, where communities could greatly benefit from an increase in meat and dairy products. Collaborating with scientists across the world, Dr Curtis R. Youngs of Iowa State University aims to increase the production of animal-derived foods in developing nations by applying reproductive biotechnologies to improve the efficiency and sustainability of livestock production.
Palau, a remote group of islands in the Pacific Ocean, relies heavily on wild fish to feed its citizens and support its economy. With a growing population and thriving tourism industry, the country cannot afford a crash in catch size. However, climate change is altering the ecosystems of Palau’s fishing waters, threatening harvests of important fish species. To improve the country’s food security and accelerate the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Palauan Government has teamed up with the Nature Conservancy to build a sustainable aquaculture community on the islands, with support from NASA. Using NASA satellite observations, the collaboration helps aquaculture farmers to find optimum locations to farm fish and shellfish, allowing them to produce an abundance of seafood while protecting the surrounding marine environment.
Dr Kurt Gamperl – Exploring How Fish Adapt to Climate Change: Sustainable Aquaculture and Species Conservation
With the global population increasing at a considerable rate, it is becoming vitally important to improve seafood production to meet the growing demand for healthy protein. As our current fishing practices are damaging to marine ecosystems, fish farming is seen as a sustainable alternative to producing seafood, but only if it is resilient to the effects of climate change. By researching how environmental change affects fish biology, Dr Kurt Gamperl of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador and his colleagues aim to make fish farming more sustainable, while ensuring global food security and allowing wild fish populations to recover.
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.