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Five breakthroughs identified to transform U.S. ag

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New report identifies five breakthroughs to address urgent challenges and advance food and ag sciences by 2030.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine (NASEM) released a new blueprint report on July 18 titled “Science Breakthroughs to Advance Food & Agricultural Research by 2030” that lays out how research can transform the fields of agriculture and food production.

Drawn from an extensive process that incorporated the voices of 146 scientists in dozens of fields, the report highlights potential “breakthroughs” through five critical initiatives of agricultural research that need to be prioritized — microbiomes, gene editing, data analysis, sensors and biosensors and transdisciplinary collaborations — according to an announcement from the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, which commissioned the NASEM report.

“Agriculture is confronting a crisis no less epic than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” SoAR Foundation president Thomas Grumbly said. “The American scientific community has now mapped out how we can transform food production, answering many of the challenges that have emerged to getting dinner on the table every night. It’s on us now to implement this blueprint.”

According to the NASEM report, the urgent progress needed today — given challenges such as water scarcity, increased weather variability, floods and droughts — requires a convergent research approach that harnesses advances in data science, materials science, information technology, behavioral sciences, economics and many other fields.

More than one-third of food produced in the U.S. is not consumed — an unacceptable loss of food and nutrients at a time of heightened global food demand, NASEM said, adding that the increased food animal production to meet that demand will generate more greenhouse gas emissions and excess animal waste.

The U.S. food supply is generally secure, the report says, but it is not immune to the costly and deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness or to the constant threat of pests and pathogens to crops, livestock and poultry.

“In the coming decade, the stresses on the U.S. food and agricultural enterprise won’t be solved by business as usual — either in the field or in our current research efforts,” said Susan Wessler, the Neil & Rochelle Campbell presidential chair for innovations in science education and distinguished professor of genetics at the University of California-Riverside and co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. “At this pivotal time in history, with an expanding global population requiring more from an increasingly fragile natural resource base, science breakthroughs are needed now more than ever for food and agriculture."

NASEM said the committee identified five breakthrough opportunities that take advantage of a convergent approach to research challenges and could potentially increase the capabilities of food and agricultural science dramatically. These opportunities include recommendations for a range of federal agencies, as well as federal and private funders and researchers.

The five breakthroughs include:

1. A systems approach to understand the nature of interactions among the different elements of the food and agricultural system can be leveraged to increase overall system efficiency, resilience and sustainability. Progress is able to occur only when the scientific community begins to more methodically integrate science, technology, human behavior, economics, policy and regulations into biophysical and empirical models, the report says.

Transdisciplinary science and systems approaches should be prioritized to solve agriculture’s most vexing problems, the report notes. Enticing and enabling researchers from disparate disciplines to work effectively together on food and agricultural issues will require incentives in support of the collaboration.

2. The development and validation of highly sensitive, field-deployable sensors and biosensors will enable rapid detection and monitoring capabilities across various food and agricultural disciplines. Sensing technology has been used widely in food and agriculture to provide point measurements for a characteristic of interest, such as temperature, but the ability to continuously monitor several characteristics at once is the key to understanding both what is happening in the target system and how it is occurring, the report authors said.

An initiative should be created to more effectively develop and employ sensing technologies across all areas of food and agriculture. For example, soil and crop sensors could provide a continuous data feed and alert a farmer when moisture content falls below a critical level to initiate site-specific irrigation to a group of plants, eliminating the need to irrigate an entire field, NASEM said.

3. The application and integration of data sciences, software tools and systems models will enable advanced analytics for managing the food and agricultural system. The food and agricultural system collects an enormous amount of data but has not had the right tools to use it effectively, as data generated in research laboratories and in the field have been maintained in an unconnected manner, the report says.

The ability to more quickly collect, analyze, store, share and integrate heterogeneous data sets will vastly improve understanding of the complex problems and, ultimately, lead to the widespread use of near-real-time, data-driven management approaches, the authors suggested.

4. The ability to carry out routine gene editing of agriculturally important organisms will allow for precise and rapid improvement of traits important for productivity and quality. Gene editing is poised to accelerate breeding to generate traits in plants, microbes and animals that improve efficiency, resilience and sustainability, the report says. This capability opens the door to domesticating new crops and soil microbes, developing disease-resistant plants and livestock, controlling organisms’ response to stress and mining biodiversity for useful genes.

Furthermore, crops could be effectively modified for enhanced taste and nutritional value, according to the report.

5. Understanding the relevance of the microbiome to agriculture and harnessing this knowledge will improve crop production, transform feed efficiency and increase resilience to stress and disease. Research on the human microbiome demonstrates the effect of resident microbes on the body’s health; however, a detailed understanding of the microbiomes in agriculture is markedly more rudimentary, the report says.

A transdisciplinary research effort focused on the various agriculturally relevant microbiomes and the complex interactions between them would help modify and improve numerous aspects of the food and agricultural continuum. For example, understanding the microbiomes of animals could help more precisely tailor nutrient rations and increase feed efficiency.

“Realizing the vision this report recommends will require a holistic approach that combines scientific discovery, technological innovation and incentives to revolutionize the way we approach greater food security and human and environmental health,” said committee co-chair John Floros, president of New Mexico State University. “It also will require significant public and private investments -- funding that is currently inadequate to address critical breakthrough areas over the next decade. The food system of tomorrow will depend on how well we are able to prepare for resiliency today and how well we are able to build our capacity for the future.”

The committee also recommended investing in physical and cyber infrastructures, engaging non-agricultural professionals and recruiting talented individuals into food and agriculture research.

According to the SoAR Foundation, advocates plan to use the “Science Breakthroughs 2030” report in the effort to increase the federal government's investments in agricultural research.

“This blueprint is a golden opportunity for the U.S. to reassess and expand on how it currently invests in the farm and food sciences,” explained SoAR board member Dr. Alan Leshner, former chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Current science has gotten us quite far, but we’ll need an agricultural moonshot in order to solve some of the most pressing issues facing food production and security today,” Grumbly concluded. “This blueprint shows how research investments can accelerate food production at a time when the world needs it most.”

"Science Breakthroughs 2030" was funded by the SoAR Foundation, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, USDA's National Institute of Food & Agriculture, National Science Foundation and 23 other foundations, scientific societies, commodity groups and university associations.

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