According to a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the food and agriculture sector in the US is facing significant issues regarding sustainability, efficiency and resilience. Agricultural systems are largely dependent on nature, and increased unpredictabilities in weather, such as a rise in floods and droughts, have been stressing agricultural production. Additionally, over 33% of food produced is not consumed, even during this time of skyrocketing global food demand. In meeting this greater demand for food, increased meat production is predicted to generate even higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and animal waste.
The National Academies report states that these stresses on the US food and agriculture sector are not likely to be solved by farmers, market conditions, input suppliers or current research efforts in the public and private sector. Instead, the report posits emerging advances in science as the solution to making the food and agriculture system more resilient, productive and sustainable.
Contributions to the report were plentiful so as to provide a well-rounded and comprehensive strategy. Along with the National Academies, contributors making up the report committee were the Committee on Science Breakthroughs 2030: A Strategy for Food and Agricultural Research; the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources; the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate; the Board on Life Sciences; the Water Science and Technology Board; the Division on Earth and Life Studies; the Food and Nutrition Board; the Health and Medicine Division; the Board on Environmental Change and Society; and the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.
The report identifies numerous goals to achieve within the next 10 years to address the three major issues facing the food and agriculture system-sustainability, efficiency and resilience. The goals were extracted from common research issues that food and agriculture scientists come across. They include increasing nutrient-use efficiency within crop production systems; diminishing soil degradation and loss, as well as food loss and waste through the supply chain; using genetic diversity to improve crops; optimizing water use and food animal genetics; establishing precision livestock production systems; and ensuring greater early and rapid detection of foodborne pathogens, as well as plant and animal diseases.
Breakthroughs and Opportunities
The report committee identifies five breakthroughs that serve as major opportunities for food and agricultural science, and provided recommendations on how to best utilize these breakthroughs for the benefit of food and agriculture. The first breakthrough involves a more transdisciplinary approach for understanding the relationship between different elements of the food and agricultural system, which can be used to bolster efficiency, resilience and sustainability. By integrating science, technology, human behavior, economics and government policies, more progress can be made in reforming the food and agricultural system.
To achieve this, the report committee states that problem-based collaboration is imperative, but that enabling researchers from different fields of study to work together to develop effective solutions to improve the food and agriculture system will require incentives. Examples of programs that already involve transdisciplinary work are grants from the NSF’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems, as well as the proposal requests in the 2018 Sustainable Agricultural System’s competitive grants program, which is administered by the USDA’s Agricultural and Food Research Initiative.
The second breakthrough entails the scientific advancement of field-deployable sensors and biosensors that can optimize detection and monitoring capabilities within the food and agriculture system. Traditionally, sensing technology has been used in food and agriculture to identify measurements for specific factors, such as temperature. Technological advances in fields such as materials science and nanotechnology can optimize the development of nano- and biosensors to inceasingly monitor environmental conditions and stresses.
The report committee recommends that an initiative be established to develop sensors for specific applications. As an example, in situ soil and crop sensors could be developed in order to alert farmers when moisture content in soil and turgor pressure in plants decreases to a critical level. This way, site-specific irrigation can occur, instead of blind irrigation of the entire field.
Establishing a reference database for microbes that aid in the identification of human pathogens and characterizing interactions between soil and plant microbiomes is critical to improving the food and agriculture system.
Thirdly, the advancement of data sciences, software tools and systems models can be used to develop advanced analytical systems for managing the food and agriculture system. The system already amasses a great deal of data, but analytical tools for agriculture are lacking, causing the data to not be used as effectively as it could. The capability to rapidly collect, analyze, store, share and implement datasets is likely to greatly improve scientists’ understanding of intricate issues within the food and agriculture system.
Therefore, the report committee recommends the establishment of initiatives that help foster the growth, adoption and accessibility of agri-food informatics. Artificial intelligence, such as machine learning algorithms, were cited as potential technologies for the unique and substantially heterogeneous datasets that are collected from the food and agriculture system.
Gene editing has emerged as a highly promising technology in health care, and the report committee posits that its possibilities are also important in the food and agriculture sector. They state that by creating an initiative to implement more widespread usage of genomics and precision breeding, genetic traits of key organisms within the food and agriculture system can be improved and optimized. By incorporating gene editing in crops, undesireable linked traits can be removed while allelic variation from wild crop relatives can be expanded. Gene editing can also increase food quality, shelf life and nutrition, while simultaneously diminishing food loss and waste.
Lastly, the report committee identifies the microbiome as a key aspect to improving crop production, feed efficiency, and stress and disease resiliency. The report notes promising reports that human microbiome research has produced, but states that agricultural microbiome research is at an elementary stage. Therefore, creating initiatives that help researchers better understand animal, soil and plant microbiomes will contribute to greater nutrient rations and can even help protect against infections. Establishing a reference database for microbes to aid in the identification of human pathogens and characterizing interactions between soil and plant microbiomes is critical to improving the food and agriculture system. The report calls for greater investments for tools, equipment, facilities and human capital to carry out the research required to achieve these goals.