Ag Researchers Say Breakthroughs Are Possible, But Only If There’s Funding

A Nebraska researcher examines experimental wheat grown in a greenhouse.

A Nebraska researcher examines experimental wheat grown in a greenhouse.

Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media (File)

Scientific research could deliver transformative technologies to the food system over the next decade, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Advances in things like gene editing, data sharing and microbiology could make crops more resilient to climate change and livestock more environmentally sustainable.

But the report, released Wednesday, also warns that the U.S. is falling behind in public funding for agricultural research and the pace of innovation will lag without more investment.

A few of the potential breakthroughs the report details are:

  • Nanosensors or biosensors: These could help farmers be more efficient with water and fertilizer. They could also detect spoiled food or diseases in livestock before they cause an outbreak.

  • The microbiome: Researchers want to understand how microbes interact with plants in the soil and livestock in their guts. Engineered microbes could make crops more efficient or prevent illness in animals.

  • Gene editing: Researchers are already working on methods to add desirable traits to plants like drought resistance.

But the U.S. lacks the infrastructure it needs to fulfill all of the potential of those technologies, according to Susan Wessler, a genetics researcher at the University of California, Riverside and one of the authors of the report.

“We’re missing the facilities,” Wessler told reporters during a webinar, offering an example of phenotyping greenhouses that can speed up the process of plant breeding.

“Many of these are coming online in other countries, particularly China. There haven’t been sufficient initiatives to fund that in this country. The sources to fund shovel-ready projects has not been there,” she said.

That was another concern voiced in the report — the U.S. is losing its edge when it comes to food and agriculture science.

“As we look at what’s happening in our country, it has really over the years lost its competitiveness and we’re now at the point where other countries may be able to out-compete in terms of efficiency,” said New Mexico State University president John Floros, who has a background in food science.

Congress appears ready to boost the research budget at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 2018 farm bill, but the House and Senate have different ideas on how much. The House would add $250 million over 10 years to the bill’s research title, while the Senate is looking at a $700 million increase.

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Story source: Harvest Public Media