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Agriculture Taps Science to Tackle Climate Change, Food Shortages

Charles Riley Memorial Lecture 2016


Randy Woodson at the 7th annual Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture | Juan David Romero

Science and technology offer vital tools to address the growing challenges facing global food production in an era of climate change, according to a panel of scientists at the 7th annual Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture on 23 June.

In a keynote address delivered by Randy Woodson, chancellor of North Carolina State University, and during a follow-up panel discussion moderated by M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, academics, scientists, and government officials explored strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change and population growth on agriculture across the globe.

“I don’t have to tell you that agriculture in this country and around the globe is facing incredible pressures and growing challenges every year simply by a growing population,” said Woodson. 

By 2050 the world’s population is estimated to reach as many as 10 billion people and increased demand for food will require 50% more food to be grown, produced, processed, and shipped, Woodson said. Atop that, climate change is expected to reduce crop yields by 25%. Some nations and regions that lack access to necessary technologies and scientific research will be particularly hard hit, he added.

Federal agencies such as the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have to devote more funding to agricultural research to help the industry meet the expected surge in demand, Woodson said.

Chavonda Jacobs-Young, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top research arm, said the agency has a wealth of information mapping agricultural trends, from crop growth levels to environmental risk that can help policy makers formulate response plans. More data analysts and analytical tools are needed, however, to better leverage the information.

“We need young people who have energy, who understand biology and informatics to come and help us figure out how to bring together systems of data that weren’t created to talk to one another,” Jacobs-Young said.

From the left, M. Peter McPherson, Randy Woodson, Carl Bednarski, Chavonda Jacobs-Young, and Steve Verett assess agricultural challenges. | Juan David Romero

The United States is in a unique and enviable position, said Jacobs-Young, with a wealth of agricultural research from multiple government institutions and land-grant colleges and universities. With a unified effort, she said, experts should be well equipped to protect agricultural resources.

“There is a need for the USDA research, the land-grants, the non-land grants, and private research,” added Steve Verett, executive vice president of Plains Cotton Growers Inc. “We have to figure out how all of us can work together without worrying about who’s getting the credit for what because I can tell you that the people on the ground don’t care.”

Carl Bednarski, president of the Michigan Farm Bureau, agreed that land-grant universities play a significant role in advancing agricultural practices through research, adding, though, that research findings from land-grant institutions could lead to more advances in agricultural practices with better collaboration between researchers and farmers.

For his part, Woodson expressed optimism about the potential of emerging technologies to help plant breeders fight plant diseases, fend off insects and boost production levels.  Among the technological advances available, he pointed to the arsenal of molecular biologists, including the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing tool, and miniaturized sensors that can be set on aerial and land-based platforms to track plant soil nutrients and moisture levels, and assess rates of yield production.

“Everything from integrated databases to real-time automated workflows and tools like DNA and spectral imaging of crops — the vast amount of data that we are able to get as we move plants through the pipeline is phenomenal,” Woodson said. “But to get this to speed up, we need to build … networks that connect all of these sources of data with the plant breeder to move products to market more quickly.”

Verett said data collected by farm business networks, a climate tracking division of Monsanto Co., the biotechnology giant, and other online data sources are helping inform the industry to generate potential solutions facing growers, and all of it can be more easily shared. He too, though, said improvements about how big data is collected and used are needed. 

“They give you all of this free information and you can see how much it rained on your farm and with a bunch of maps out there you can record everything and that is great, but at the end of the day just having all that information does not do you any good. It’s what you do with that information and how you use it effectively,” Verett said.

Collaboration is the key, according to Woodson, for creating an environment where scientists and engineers can cooperate to find ways to reverse problems such as crop yield loss in developing nations, increases in plant diseases, and more pests due to higher temperatures. 

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“There is no shortage of great ideas around the globe in agricultural science,” he said, stressing the need to take advantage of talent and offer more degrees in academic fields such as data science to train the next generation.  

Woodson cited a recent National Academy of Sciences report that found genetically engineered crops to be safe to eat, quoting from a story in The Atlantic, he added, “’It’s the product, not the process, that should be regulated.’”

The National Academy of Sciences report found that emerging technologies are continuously blurring the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding “to the point where regulatory systems based on process are technically difficult to defend.” As a result, the report recommends a “tiered approach to regulation that is based not on the breeding process but on considerations of novelty, potential hazard, and exposure as criteria.” It said that genetically engineered crop governance should be transparent and participatory.

The findings, according to Woodson, serve as a reminder of the importance of communicating the value of science in everyday life, in this case agriculture.

“We have a great challenge and it’s a challenge to feed a growing population,” Woodson said, calling for sustainable solutions.

AAAS hosts the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture each year to celebrate the legacy of the 19th century entomologist, who went on to become vice president of the AAAS biology division in 1888. The lecture is dedicated to enhancing agriculture through scientific knowledge. Sponsors included the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation and the World Food Prize Foundation.

[U.S. Agriculture Department image licensed by and modified under CC BY 2.0.]


Juan David Romero

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