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.
In a recent study published in Nature Sustainability, scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) estimate that herbicide resistance of a major agricultural weed is costing the UK economy £400 million each year. The research team’s new model is the first to be able to accurately quantify the economic costs of herbicide-resistant black-grass and its impact on wheat yield under various farming scenarios, with significant implications for national food security. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Dr Alexa Varah, lead author of the research, who describes the growing problem of herbicide resistance and the capabilities of her team’s model.
Fungi feeding on other fungi (mycoparasites) represent a promising alternative to chemical fungicides for plant disease control. They also have potential applications in medicine and across industry. Dr Susanne Zeilinger and her team from the University of Innsbruck in Austria are working to identify and characterise the genes and gene products that are active during the interactions of antagonistic fungi. This critical work is paving the way for improvement of fungal strains as biotechnological workhorses in plant protection and beyond.
Representing approximately 7,000 members in over 100 countries, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) is devoted to advancing engineering research applicable to agriculture, food and biological systems. In this exclusive interview, we have had the pleasure of speaking with Dr Sue Nokes, President of ASABE, who discusses the myriad of ways that the Society accelerates this diverse research field, towards ensuring global food, energy and water security, in the face of our changing climate and growing human population.
Dr Amy Schmidt – iAMResponsibleTM: Educating Food Producers & Consumers About Antimicrobial Resistance
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the acquired ability of microorganisms to withstand the effects of medications used to treat them, is a serious and growing threat to public health. In collaboration with experts from various US institutions, Dr Amy Schmidt at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has developed a program called the iAMResponsibleTM Project, aimed at educating consumers, agricultural producers and others on the risks associated with AMR, as well as strategies to mitigate these risks.
Globally, grassland ecosystems represent a vast, often under-appreciated store of carbon. Sustainable grazing practices offer the potential for maximising the role of these ecosystems as carbon storehouses and biodiversity safeguards. Dr Mark Boyce and his team from the University of Alberta have been investigating how cattle-grazed systems can be adapted to increase carbon storage on the Canadian Prairies. They use the data collected to create protocols for supporting the inclusion of grazing strategies in climate mitigation plans.
Because of growing international trade, increasing numbers of invasive pest insects are being transported throughout the world. If they become established, invasive insects can have enormous impacts on agriculture, human health and natural ecosystems. However, it can be difficult to control them without causing further damage to the surrounding environment. Dr Robert K. Vander Meer of the USDA Agricultural Research Service studies the chemistry of pest ants, as it pertains to their behaviour and biological systems, with the aim of identifying efficient novel methods to monitor and control them.
Residues of drugs, pesticides and other chemical substances can reduce the safety of animal-derived foods, adversely affecting the health and confidence of consumers. To address this pressing issue, scientists at several US universities founded the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD), a program aimed at providing veterinarians and livestock producers with knowledge and tools that can help in preventing or reducing the presence of chemical residues in food.
Carrots display a wide range of different colours – orange, purple, white, red and yellow – driven by the accumulation of various compounds. These compounds affect the nutritional value and health benefits of the roots, making them prime targets for breeding better varieties. Dr Philipp Simon and his colleagues at the United States Department of Agriculture investigate the genetics of carrot colours to help breeders develop even more nutritious strains.
Southern flounder is an economically important edible fish, but farming of this species has not yet been perfected. In fact, fish farms are heavily reliant on capturing new fish from the wild each year for breeding purposes. However, wild populations are in decline due to changing environmental conditions and over-exploitation, which presents a real challenge to the sustainable production of this species. Dr Todd Sink and his colleagues at Texas A&M University are developing new methods to move away from the use of wild fish, by creating a sustainable captive breeding stock.
The incidence and severity of droughts continue to increase across the globe, posing a significant threat to agricultural productivity and our ability to feed a rapidly increasing human population. However, drought-stressed plants encourage a shift in the microorganism communities surrounding their roots, which in turn may help the plants to tolerate drought conditions. By harnessing this system, Dr Devin Coleman-Derr and his team at the USDA Agricultural Research Service and University of California, Berkeley, aim to develop microbial-based treatments to improve the drought tolerance and productivity of important crop species.
Traditional intensive farming practices have significant negative consequences for the land and surrounding ecosystems. By disrupting the natural function of these habitats, the valuable ecosystem services they provide are compromised. Dr Richard Teague in the department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University, and colleagues around North America, are investigating the costs and benefits of replacing traditional farming practices with regenerative cropping and grazing techniques that restore ecosystem function and soil health as the base for improving profits.
Fruit flies cause significant annual damage to fruit crops globally by laying their eggs into healthy, living fruit tissue. The difficulty in predicting the attacks and controlling the flies before it is too late leads farmers to spray pesticides that can have damaging consequences for surrounding ecosystems. Dr Nicholas M. Teets and his team from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology aim to eliminate the need for pesticides in the battle against these insect pests, through the development of sterile insects that are easy to rear and release en masse.
Dr Renée Arias | Dr Victor Sobolev | Dr Marshall Lamb – Ensuring Peanut Safety by Harnessing Plant Defences
Fungal toxins that may accumulate in peanuts pose a hidden threat to people globally. Whereas European countries and the USA have controls to prevent contaminated seed from entering the market, this is not available in many developing countries, where peanuts are a vital source of protein and nutrients. However, detecting and controlling these toxins has posed significant scientific and economic challenges. Dr Renée Arias, Dr Victor Sobolev and Dr Marshall Lamb of the USDA National Peanut Research Laboratory have pioneered methods for inhibiting toxin production using RNAi technology and enhancing natural peanut defences.
Pasture-raised chicken is viewed as a more ethical option compared to that reared in overcrowded barns. However, pasture-raised birds are more likely to come in contact with bacterial pathogens that can be dangerous to consumers. Dr Michael Rothrock and his colleagues, at the Egg Safety and Quality Research Unit of the United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service, investigate how environmental factors can lead to the contamination of pasture-raised chicken with harmful bacteria. Through their research, the team hopes to find ways of ensuring the safety of this popular food.
Dairy farming is a tough business, where farmers experience countless challenges on a regular basis, from ensuring the health and welfare of their cattle to protecting the safety of their employees. Dr Amber Adams-Progar and her team in the Department of Animal Sciences at Washington State University are involved in many research projects, which aim to improve various aspects of the dairy industry, by protecting farm profits, worker safety and animal welfare.
Net primary productivity, or NPP, refers to the amount of carbon dioxide that plants take in during photosynthesis, minus the amount released during respiration, resulting in final observable biomass. As carbon dioxide is the primary driver of climate change, having a full understanding of this process is now critical. However, until recently, global NPP and how it is affected by climate change were poorly understood. To obtain a complete picture of NPP and the factors that drive global changes, Dr Steven Running and his team at the University of Montana have been investigating satellite data from the past few decades.
Weeds that are resistant to herbicides pose an ever-growing danger to our major crops, threatening global food security. Dr Lauren Lazaro and her colleagues at Louisiana State University AgCenter are testing new, herbicide-free techniques to control the spread of these threats.