Lee-Ann Jaykus, professor in the department of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences at North Carolina State University, speaks with former Ph.D. student Hari Dwivedi. Photo: NCSU Communications

The climate is changing. Crops are becoming more vulnerable to diseases and pests. Natural resources like soil and water are diminishing. Obesity rates are rising.

These are just some of the most pressing food and agriculture-related issues the world is currently facing, and will continue to battle in the coming decades. As these issues continue to afflict more people, the need for transformative, inter-disciplinary solutions also becomes even more crucial.

As a result, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have called on a diverse group of scientists to accomplish an ambitious and complex task: identify the greatest scientific opportunities that will help revolutionize the way food is grown and consumed.

The initiative, called “Science Breakthroughs 2030: A Strategy for Food and Agricultural Research,” resembles a “moonshot” of sorts—it includes a similar concept and methodology as former Vice President Joe Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot,” which aims to accelerate cancer research, develop new therapies and find ways to prevent cases of cancer all together. The basis of both of these moonshots is large collaborations among a variety of experts to ensure specific challenges are being analyzed from every possible perspective.

“The goal is to develop a compelling scientific strategy for food and agricultural research for the next decade and beyond that would stimulate transformational change in the food and agricultural system by catalyzing new research directions and partnerships, attracting new research talent, stimulating entrepreneurial activities, increasing funding opportunities, and ultimately opening new paths to a safe, healthful, and sustainable supply of food and fiber,” wrote the National Academies.

If successful, the Breakthroughs 2030 initiative could act as a catalyst for a Green Revolution 2.0—bringing new, innovative techniques and tools to food production.

An interdisciplinary approach
The initiative is co-chaired by John Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture and director of research and extension at Kansas State University, and Susan Wessler, professor of genetics at UC Riverside and home secretary for the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to Wessler and Floros, the study committee is made up of members and study staff that represent about 15 different fields—ranging from economics to nutrition sciences.

The committee has been tasked with addressing four main questions:
1. What are the greatest challenges that food and agriculture are likely to face in the coming decades?
2. What are the greatest foreseeable opportunities for advances in food and agriculture science?
3. What fundamental knowledge gaps exist that limit the ability of scientists to respond to these challenges as well as take advantage of the opportunities?
4. What general areas of research should be advanced and supported to fill these knowledge gaps?

To help accomplish this, the group has encouraged the public and other researchers around the country to submit their input, ideas, tools and expertise to a platform called IdeaBuzz. The committee also has a timeline of meetings set throughout the rest of the year to discuss the IdeaBuzz submissions, as well as other tasks.

The first committee meeting was held on June 14, followed by a “town hall” and second committee meeting on August 8. Both meetings were open to the public. The August meeting discussed some of the ideas and white pages submitted to the IdeaBuzz discussion platform.
The next event is scheduled for early October, which is being referred to as a week-long “jamboree.” About 70 nominated scientists will be invited to elaborate on their ideas and techniques that could potentially be applied to help solve the identified food and agriculture challenges.

Following the “jamboree,” there will be two more study committee meetings, which will be closed sessions.

Once the committee has answered the four questions, they will produce a consensus report that outlines their recommendations for future research directions. They will highlight their recommendations in the context of how these ideas will lead to a sustainable food supply, improved public health, strengthened natural resource base, and creation of new jobs. It will be anonymously peer-reviewed before being released to its sponsors and the public.

The final report is expected to be released in the spring 2018.

‘Realistic, but ambitious’
The $1.2 million initiative is funded by the SoAR Foundation and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture (FFAR), with the support of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the USDA, as well as nearly 20 other organizations.

Lee-Ann Jaykus, professor in the department of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences at North Carolina State University, and scientific director of the USDA-NIFA Food Virology Collaborative (NoroCORE), identified some of the reasons why this initiative is needed now.

She noted that the funding climate nationally for science is changing, and researchers are facing less funds and more competition for science in general, not just agriculture.

“This is timely in terms of promoting the fact that research is necessary for many aspects of our lives, but in this case for the sustainability of agriculture and a healthy, safe food supply,” Jaykus told Laboratory Equipment.

According to Robert Easter, SoAR Board Member, USDA research funding has declined 18 percent since 2003.
Jaykus also reiterated a similar message as what is stated in the mission of Breakthroughs 2030—the emergence of new issues in food and agriculture is multi-faceted, and will likely only get worse over time.

“If you’re going to address a multi-faceted problem, you need to do it in an interdisciplinary manner,” Jaykus noted. “There are a lot of tools that are emerging in different disciplines that have not necessarily been embraced by agriculture, but they have both relevance and potential for high-impact,” Jaykus said.  “Part of our charge is to investigate these new tools—whether they be genomics, big data, next-generation sequencing—because they could have a really significant impact in solving these major problems.”

Scientists from Queensland University of Technology developed a biofortified banana (top) with orange flesh high in pro-vitamin A. Photo: QUT

Gene editing
Genomics is one field that has been applied to food production for decades now, but progress has been slow, and consumers have been hesitant to accept modified products.

Golden rice, for example, has been touted as a promising way to nourish populations in low-income nations—particularly in Africa and Asia—where families are not getting enough iron, zinc, vitamin A and other much-needed nutrients on a daily basis to stay healthy.

Efforts to grow a sustainable and nutritious crop in these much-needed areas have been disappointing so far. But in August, researchers from ETH Zurich announced a breakthrough that could be a game-changer for nearly half of the world’s population who rely on rice to meet their daily caloric needs.

Until now, all previous golden rice varieties had only one micronutrient. But the ETH Zurich team was able to create a line that has a combination of several micronutrients in one plant. The plant holds sufficient levels of iron and zinc, plus higher levels of beta-carotene in the endosperm of the grain compared to normal varieties.

Scientifically, the success was the engineering of a gene cassette containing four genes for the micronutrient improvement that could be inserted into the rice genome as a single genetic locus.

“This has the advantage that iron, zinc and beta-carotene levels can be simultaneously increased by genetic crosses in rice varieties of various countries. Otherwise it would be necessary to cross rice lines with the individual micronutrients to reach the improved micronutrient content in rice grains,” the researchers explained in a university press release.

The lines are still in testing phases, but they will continue to improve and potentially be tested in a field as early as next year.
Another recent success in editing foods was reported by Queensland University of Technology researchers in July. A group, led by James Dale, professor at the Institute for Future Environments, took a gene from a banana that originated in Papua New Guinea, which is naturally very high in pro-vitamin A, and inserted it into a Cavendish banana.

Over the course of a decade, the researchers tested hundreds of different genetic variations in the lab and in field trials in Queensland, Australia until they achieved optimal results.

The focus of the project, which received $10 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was to boost the nutritional content of bananas specifically grown in Uganda, where the fruit is a major dietary staple.

Dale said 650,000 to 700,000 children worldwide die from pro-vitamin A deficiency each year, with another several hundred thousand going blind. By creating the biofortified banana, the plant could drastically reduce these statistics.

The “super genes” have been sent to Uganda in test tubes where they have been inserted into native Ugandan bananas to see how they handle field trials there.

These types of successes are encouraging, but typically take decades-worth of trial and error until the optimal strain is developed. Utilizing new techniques that come out of the Breakthroughs initiative may expedite the process.

Developing a strategy
The term “transformative” quickly became a resonating theme during discussions at the first public committee meeting in June. The committee also emphasized that their system-based approach needs to keep in mind the consumer-behavior aspect when considering potential solutions to challenges. Scientists may have an innovative approach, but if consumers aren’t willing to adopt it, the effort will prove unsuccessful.

“People have been calling for a 10-year vision, or a compelling set of research directions that Congress, the public and the scientific community could get behind and unify around,” said Robin Schoen, Director of the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources at National Academy of Sciences.

According to Schoen, the study is not designed to give a review of any research programs, make any organization or policy recommendations, or even promote more allocated funding—it is devoted specifically to the science.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the system at a time when it is expected to produce more,” Schoen told Laboratory Equipment. “And there’s a thinking that we—as an agriculture research enterprise—may need to open itself up to the tools that exist in disciplines that are not traditionally associated with food and agriculture.”

One field Schoen believes may hold some promise lies within the power of big computing and data science, which she said will one day be helpful on many different fronts—particularly for analyzing both natural systems and synthetic ones.

As an example, Schoen explained that big data could be used to screen soil samples from across the country to understand how they are changing over time. This could allow researchers to potentially manipulate the soil to make it better equipped to withstand threats or toxins. Big data could also help narrow down what types of methods or compounds would be the most efficient at preventing diseases in cattle and other animals.

“You have to be thoughtful about radical change,” said Schoen.

Precision agriculture
Many of these intriguing research avenues can be integrated into a broader concept referred to as “precision agriculture.”

This customized approach allows farmers to be more thoughtful about how they plant crops. It also allows farmers to make educated decisions in preparation for, or in response to, variables that may affect the growth of their crops, like weather or disease threats.
The main objective of precision agriculture is to maximize crop yields while minimizing the environmental impact, and reducing costs. This is done through real-time data collection that enables better decision-making in regards to when to plant, fertilize and harvest.

For example, sensors can be placed throughout fields to measure temperature, humidity and other factors of the soil and air. Additionally, drones and satellite images can show how an area has changed over time, or how it responds to certain scenarios. There are so many variables and unpredictable situations that come into play when planting and harvesting, and precision agriculture can help farmers be more proactive in handling these uncertainties.

Agriculture-specific drones, which have just started to emerge in the last year or two, come equipped with flight planning software that enables a farmer to outline a specific route the drone should cover, making the process easy, automated and much more efficient than ground surveys. Some drones can not only survey crop fields to help spot problems, but they can also spray fertilizers and pesticides.

Drones can spray with more accuracy than traditional tractors, and they eliminate the potential hazards of exposing workers who spray the chemicals manually.

According to Global Market Insights, the agricultural drone market will exceed $1 billion by 2024.

Some big players in agriculture are starting to adopt new technologies like drones to boost crop yields, but there’s still room to improve. And smaller-scaled operations may not necessarily have the funds to do the same. For example, one of the “elite” drones on the market is senseFly eBee SQ, which can cost more than $10,000—but boasts the ability to capture 500 acres of footage in a single flight.

If applied on a larger scale, big data and data science, robotics and drones and other fields could greatly improve efficiency in the agriculture field.

“(Breakthroughs 2030) is a tremendous opportunity to put some excellent scientists together to look at the system as a whole and use that perspective to come up with creative ways to address some the most pressing issues that food and agriculture are facing in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Jaykus.

Agriculture-specific drones allow farmers to conduct precision agriculture, a customized approach to maximize crop yields while minimizing environmental impact.