By Sujan Paudel, 2021-2024 FFAR Fellow
at the University of Georgia
Within the U.S., Georgia is famously known for its Vidalia onion industry. These onions were first grown in Toombs County, South Georgia. Their unique flat shape with a sweet taste led to immediate popularity among growers and consumers. The distinct quality of this onion is due to the low amount of sulfur in the soil which cuts down the acidity and pungency making them sweeter than most other varieties. The continued growth of the industry and Vidalia’s increasing popularity did create branding problems where onions brought from outside were bagged and sold as Vidalias. The Federal Market Order 955 in 1989 defined the growing regions and mandated the growers to register and use specific varieties that provided national protection to the industry. This branding support and advancements in storage conditions oversaw the further growth of the industry which accounts for a staggering $160 million farm gate value and is now spread across 12,000 acres in 20 counties of South Georgia. My research, as a plant pathology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia, aims to help protect this industry from deadly bacterial diseases..
Going Nuts: Nut Crops as Climate Resilient Protein Alternatives for the Future
By Matt Davis, 2022-2025 FFAR Fellow
at University of California – Davis
With the impact of climate change on agriculture becoming ever-more apparent, food producers and researchers need to be able to adapt quickly to environmental pressures. A greater reliance on nut crops could play an important role in this adaptation. Nuts are nutritionally dense and one of the most climate efficient food sources of protein. For example, producing 100 grams of beef protein generates almost 50 Kg of greenhouse gases, which is more than 150 times the greenhouse gas emissions produced for the same amount of nut protein.
By Ellie Ellis, 2021-2024 FFAR Fellow
at Colorado State University
Some people claim there is a growing disconnect between agricultural research and the farmers who are supposed to benefit from the findings of this research.While controlled experiments are great for understanding specific agronomic outcomes, they are not well suited for studying the impacts on farm economics, neighboring farmers, or the surrounding ecosystem.
Engineering Beneficial Bacteria to Improve Human Health
By Echo Pan, 2020-2023 FFAR Fellow
at North Carolina State University
Though we are only just beginning to understand the many ways in which microorganisms impact health, the advance of next generation genetic sequencing technologies has enabled us to reveal the composition of the human microbiome. Scientists are working to better understand the interactions between the microbiome and the human host, as well as potential ways to manipulate the microbiome to improve health.
By Lauren Anderson, 2020-2023 FFAR Fellow
at North Carolina State University
As temperatures increase, it not only impacts human health but also can be a major threat to swine agriculture. Pigs are disproportionately affected by heat stress due to their physiology. They can only sweat at about two percent of the rate of the average human, so their ability to dissipate heat by evaporative cooling (through sweat) is virtually non-existent.
Wetlands: Agricultural Soil & Water Management for a Changing Climate
By Chantel Chizen, 2021-2024 FFAR Fellow
at University of Saskatchewan
Like the seasons, there are natural drought-flood cycles where we experience a back and forth between years of little precipitation leading to drought and other years with heavy precipitation that can cause flooding. However, with climate change these weather extremes are expected to be more intense and the patterns may become difficult to predict.One strategy that can increase crop production’s resilience to extreme weather is maintaining wetlands within cropland.
Adorned in beautiful black and golden stripes, the Colorado potato beetle (CPB) is a perfect example of the saying, “all that glitters isn’t gold.” These charming and seemingly innocuous beetles cost potato farmers tens of millions of dollars annually. A single young beetle can eat up to 40 centimeters of leaf surface every day, which is about half the size of a sheet of copy paper. Combine that with a reproduction rate of about 500 eggs per female, leaving a potato field with nothing but plant skeletons.
Researchers and plant breeders are diligently working to secure global food security. While the population increases, the amount of arable land is decreasing. Climate change is also contributing to the growing uncertainty about future food supplies due to its impact on crop yields. Yet, all is not lost. My research at University of Maryland is addressing this problem at a fundamental level by improving the gene editing toolkits that are at the center of cutting-edge research to develop high-yield and climate-resilient crops.
Food insecurity is a concern now and in the future. Globally, the United Nations estimates that about 690 million people are food insecure. By the year 2050, the world population is expected to reach nine billion people, requiring food supplies to double. While the demand for food grows, fertile, arable land is decreasing and extreme weather events are increasing, making the task of feeding everyone more difficult. With climate change, the problem is further exacerbated as pest and pathogen ranges expand and habitable zones for crops change. Plants need to be stronger and hardier. At the same time, we need to implement more sustainable crop management practices that lessen chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. The challenge seems intractable.
Sometimes, minor details can have the biggest impact. For example, zinc is a mineral nutrient recommended in small proportions; just 12 to 15 milligrams per day suffices. Yet, a diet that’s deficient in zinc can cause a plethora of dysfunctions, including neural defects and delayed growth in infants. The solution to this challenge requires more than the development of supplements and fortified foods. Although the products from supplementation and fortification are relatively cheap in high-income countries, they are still unaffordable in many low-income countries. Additionally, the prevalence of malnutrition is further exacerbated in low-income countries due to their reliance on cereal grains, such as wheat and rice, that are inherently low in mineral nutrients.
Strict dieters probably save the empty calories from pastas and breads for their ‘cheat’ days, but now wheat-based products can be both healthy and tasty. Historically, wheat production has primarily focused on yield – more wheat produced per hectare. Yet, the focus on increased production unintentionally resulted in reduced nutritional quality. Breads, noodles and the like are not considered to be particularly high in protein and micronutrients. Specifically, iron and zinc are the micronutrients that are most important to human health, yet are found in low quantities in wheat. Given growing threats to food and nutrition security in the face of population growth and a changing climate, scientists are tackling the challenge of producing wheat varieties that are both high yielding and rich in protein and nutritional quality.
Reducing water scarcity by improving water productivity in the United States
By Gambhir Lamsal, 2021-2024 FFAR Fellow
Water is a scarce resource utilized by farmers, cities and industries to advance their economic activity. As population increases and the effect of climate change intensifies, competition among multiple stakeholders will exert additional pressure on already over exploited resources. According to the US Government Accountability Office, four out of five states in the United States will face water scarcity somewhere in their state in the coming decade.
Many people view manure as just a pile of waste, yet this combination of feces, urine and bedding material is so much more than that. An inevitable byproduct of the livestock industry, manure can be an inexpensive tool to improve the soil and the plants we grow for food, fiber and fuel. With some supplementation from synthetic sources, manure can supply plants with the macro- and micro-nutrients needed for proper growth and production. My research as a Rockey FFAR Fellow at the University of Minnesota focuses on identifying optimal manure management strategies, with a specific focus on the use of cover crops, to help growers while also protecting the environment.
Dusting the Soil for Fungus-Prints: Spinach Seed Production and One of its Greatest Threats
By Alex Batson, 2019-2022 FFAR Fellow
Spinach, one of the most popular dark-green leafy vegetables in the American diet, is grown across the United States and the world. Yet spinach seed only can be produced in a few regions that share specific climatic conditions: summers characterized by long days, mild temperatures and low humidity with little rainfall. Consequently, the ideal climate in western Oregon and western Washington makes this the only spinach seed production region in the United States and the home of up to one-fifth of the global spinach seed supply.
A day on the Battlefield: Searching for Perennial defenses in wild places
By Kelsey Peterson, 2019-2022 FFAR Fellow
Punctuating the dust and dryness in my research plots is the sound of brown leaves scraping together – a sound typically heard in October when leaves begin to die on purpose as plants prepare for the winter. In July, however, the scrape of brown leaf on brown leaf is not good and the noise has nothing to do with the dry heat. Plants making this noise are infected – much like you would assume a person with a rattly cough is not well. Infections from pathogens – like rust – aptly named due to the amber, brown color of their reproductive pustules – push themselves into plant cells and leech on plant nutrients until the tissue dies.
Can Adding Carbon to the Soil Help us Manage Weeds?
By Maria Gannett, 2019-2022 FFAR Fellow
Soil is alive with microorganisms and keeping the soil microbial community healthy is key to plant growth. But how exactly are soil microbes and plant growth related? And how might we use this knowledge to develop a useful weed management tool for growers? These are the fundamental questions my research is seeking to answer.
Gene Editing is a Real Solution for Climate Change
By Nicholas Karavolias, FFAR Fellow 2020-2023
As a plant biologist, I have continually been inspired by the work of peer researchers developing innovative solutions to the severe impacts of climate change in natural and agricultural environments. I have been especially inspired by the disruption that the new editing tool CRISPR/Cas has brought in fields ranging from human medicine to agriculture.
Taking Science Beyond the Bench: Critical Reflections for Change-Oriented Research
By Krista Marshall, 2019-2022 FFAR Fellow
The urgency of climate change mitigation and adaptation in agriculture coincides with a call for all of us to envision food systems that promote equity, justice and dignity for all people who produce, process, distribute and consume food. As scientists, we can play an important and collaborative role in generating solutions to these challenges. We should reflect a collective vision that represents a diverse range of stakeholders in our scientific work.
Dirt is dead. Soil, on the other hand, is teaming with bacteria, fungi, algae and other tiny creatures that are the foundation of a symbiotic ecosystem. Like all living things, soil has health; defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a diverse living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. This definition speaks to the importance of managing soils, so they are sustainable for future generations. Decades of conventional agriculture practices have damaged soil health resulting in the loss of soil biodiversity across the globe.
I study Theobroma cacao, the plant that produces a seed that, when fermented, becomes cocoa, the raw ingredient for one of the most popular treats in the world: chocolate. Unfortunately for cacao and chocolate lovers around the world, a rogue element is “passing” as iron and entering the plants’ root system, damaging its health and accumulating in the seeds. The culprit is cadmium, a non-essential heavy metal and an environmental toxin.
Herbicide-Resistant Weeds: Looking Below the Soil Surface
By Sarah Kezar, 2020-2023 FFAR Fellow
Farmers have been fighting weeds for millennia. While the number and efficacy of tools to combat weed pressures have vastly improved, weed resistance is a continuing problem for crop productivity and profitability. Even when weeds appear to be destroyed, their seeds linger, hidden in the soil seedbank. A seedbank is the living memory of resistant weed species and the source for future weed infestations. They are the most impactful robber of yields worldwide and particularly destructive for cotton, which is the focus of my research.
Plants, like all living things, have co-evolved along with microbes. Plants are complex ecosystems for microbes, where every part of the plant and every surface can host and be shaped by a distinct community of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms.
While we have known for centuries that these microbes exist, only in the last few decades have researchers been able to understand the microbial communities associated with plants by identifying key species and estimating their abundance. We now know that there are microbial communities, “microbiomes,” that are intimately linked to different species of plants.
Systems Thinking for Sustainable Manure Management
By Alison Deviney, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow
Sustainability is a popular buzzword these days, but what does it really mean to be sustainable? That often depends on who you ask, particularly when it comes to the food animal industry. A livestock producer might think of maintaining economic viability in their farming operation, while their downwind neighbor may feel it is more about having fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink. Meanwhile, animal protein consumers generally focus on price, although their perceptions of quality or animal welfare could also impact purchasing choices. We can think of sustainability as a three-legged table where one leg represents the economy, one leg represents the environment and one leg represents society. If any of these legs fails – or alternatively, outsizes the others – the table falls over, unable to sustain its balance.