Scientific innovations solving agricultural problems

By Sarah Evanega

April 18, 2017

Agriculture plays a critical role in food security, political stability and world peace, yet it leaves a big environmental footprint. Agriculture accounts for 33 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 75 percent of nitric oxide emissions. It’s also responsible for 70 percent of world water use, 50 percent of the topsoil loss, and drives 80 percent of the planet’s deforestation.

The challenge for all of us as scientists, policy makers, farmers and consumers is to mitigate these environmental insults while feeding 9+ billion people.

Fortunately, scientific innovations, including agricultural biotechnology, are helping us meet these challenges. I’d like to share five inspirational stories of people who are relying on science to address common, but daunting, farming issues.

The nitrogen problem

Giles Oldroyd, a professor at the John Innes Centre in the UK, is leading a team that aspires to engineer cereal crops, like maize, to produce their own nitrogen fertilizer by associating with soil microbes. This addresses three challenges: lack of access to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in areas of the developing world, like Sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are only 15-20 percent of those in similar climatic regions; eliminating the nitrogen run-off from farms and the associated release of nitric oxide; and reducing carbon emissions generated by the production of nitrogen fertilizers. If Giles and his team are successful, farmers around the world will have access to cleaner, greener, cereal crops. Learn more about Giles’ mission to address the nitrogen problem here.

The topsoil problem

Bram Govaerts, a native of Belgium, works at the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Mexico. Bram champions the adoption of conservation agriculture practices that reduce topsoil loss and offer myriad other benefits, such as reduced tillage, leaving surface resides on the land, and diversifying cropping systems. To help small-scale farmers across the developing world achieve widespread adoption of these practices, Bram uses cell phones, social media, and other communications and educational approaches, both online and offline. These strategies inspire change at both the farmer and policy levels. Bram is committed to helping farmers access the innovations to rise above subsistence farming. As he noted upon receiving the prestigious Borlaug Field Award in 2014: “The best recognition of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s legacy is to be conscious and shout out loud that farming is the future. It is our moral duty as researchers to bring pride back to the fields by harnessing the existing innovations of farmers and other value chain actors and fostering capacity and application of science and technology.” See Bram in action here.

The land conservation problem

To feed a growing population without encroaching further onto wild lands, scientists are looking to produce more food on less land. Researches are exploring such ingenious approaches as increasing the rates by which plants perform photosynthesis: the process of using light, water, and CO2 to produce biomass and food. Ultimately, this may help plants sequester CO2 more efficiently, which could boost yields without increasing cultivated acreage. Maureen Hanson, at Cornell University, is leading a collaborative team in the US and the UK to transfer the genes that code for a special compartment in microbes to flowering plants, which enables those plants to become more efficient at using CO2 to to produce biomass. Stephen Long, a scientist in Illinois working on the RIPE (Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency) project, is taking another approach to increase rates of photosynthesis. These applications of genetic engineering are innovative models for helping us to produce more with less. Read about Stephen’s work to improve photosynthesis in cassava here. And Maureen’s work here.

The pesticide problem

Researchers in Bangladesh helped reduce insecticide use by smallholder farmers when they developed a variety of insect-resistant eggplant, or brinjal as it is known in South Asia, in 2014. Brinjal that incorporates resistance conferred by Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) required the will of forward-thinking political leaders, such as Bangladesh Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury, to get approved and on the market. Now, farmers who used to spray their brinjal as frequently as twice a day have reduced their pesticide use by as much as 80 percent. This means a healthier farmer, a healthier environment, healthier consumers and a huge cost savings for small-scale farmers. With the additional income generated by their crops of pesticide-free GMO eggplant, farmers can afford to better feed and educate their families, which may further help break the cycle of poverty cycle. Watch farmers discuss their success with Bt brinjal here.

The thirsty plants problem

Researchers in eastern Africa, such as plant breeder Elizma Joubert and entomologist Regina Tende, are part of a global public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). They are working to produce GM maize that can resist insects and thrive on limited amounts of water. This is an ever-increasing challenge as drought has become the new norm for many farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa, where maize is an important staple crop. WEMA already is being grown commercially in South Africa and has been successfully field-tested in Kenya and Uganda. Most recently, Tanzania conducted its first-ever GMO field trial, and the drought-tolerant WEMA showed good results. Learn more about this historic trial and the potential it holds for small-scale farmers here.

These five innovations are mitigating agriculture’s use of nitrogen, topsoil and land; helping plants be more efficient at using nitrogen and water; and reducing pesticide use. These are just some of the ways that agricultural scientists are helping improve global food security, reduce poverty and achieve environmental sustainability. To translate this innovative research into global practices that reduce the environmental footprint of the food we eat requires political will and the public support of policy makers, farmers and all of us, as consumers.

Join us on Earth Day, April 22, as we March for Science as a global community in support of science and innovation needed to address the great environmental and agricultural challenges we face.

Sarah Evanega holds a doctorate in plant biology from Cornell University, where she is the director of the Alliance for Science.