My son, Scott, earned his undergraduate degree in genetics. He helped in lab processes that were underway in his college, mostly in the food producing plant area.
His experience made me aware of the vast field of agricultural research. Universities all across the country are searching for ways to increase food production, improve purchasers’ response to healthful foods and defend against natural enemies to the global food supply.
For instance, a disease that attacks wheat, causing it to wither suddenly before it produces any grain, devastated crops in several Middle Eastern countries. When an important crop, such as wheat, fails in a country, famine follows. A common method for solving a problem such as the withering wheat is to survey an infected field and find plants that are still healthy. It is not uncommon for nature to provide the clues to solving the blight. By comparing the diseased plants with the unaffected plants, researchers can isolate the gene that protects the plant. By adding protective gene(s) to standard seed wheat, the resulting crop will hopefully be resistant to the blight.
George Washington held the idea that it was the duty of wealthy, financially secure farmers to experiment with seed varieties, crop rotation and animal husbandry to find the best practices. Since the wealthy could afford to fail, they would then be able to share what they had learned with smaller farmers. He experimented with seeds, planting methods and soil enhancement.
In much the same way, American universities and agribusinesses experiment with similar issues, trying to solve the problems and protect from threats to the food supply in hundreds of poorer countries.
Currently, there are hundreds of projects underway in America. At the University of California, Davis, they are working on finding a gene to improve drought tolerance in rice plants.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, they’re trying to find genes in plant roots that can be maximized to cause plants to take up the nitrogen applied by farmers. Currently, only about 40 percent of the applied nitrogen is used by the plants, and the rest can become pollutants. If the plants could use more of the fertilizers, farmers could use much less.
A company named Recombinetics is dealing with the problem of cute little piglets growing up to be boars so vicious they make the Big Bad Wolf look like a wimp. Pig farmers must castrate young male pigs. But the project is not pleasant for the piglets, and introduces the possibility of infection. Researchers have found a way to prevent male pigs from maturing sexually while still growing high-quality pork. Better yet, the condition is easily reversible if an animal is needed for breeding.
Other agencies examine ways to protect crops from flood or drought damage. Studies at several universities are researching how to best protect and enhance soils for maximum sustainable health.
As I read through the grant abstracts listed on the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR) website, it struck me that many of the projects were specific to the region where the research is being conducted. Since they would have to conduct field trials of their solutions, it makes sense, and it was fun to see what type of agriculture is in each area of the country.
At Michigan State University, they’re studying how to defeat a pest called the spotted wing drosophila. It attacks soft fruits and is particularly interested in the local crop of tart cherries.
At Colorado State University they’re studying the defeat of bacterial leaf spot in maize.
At Purdue University in Indiana, they’re studying striped bass fish and what factors maximize fish production.
Several projects are underway to help find ways to get Americans to eat a more nutritious diet. Studies involve the effects of marketing, placement in supermarkets, trends in purchasing by consumers and education.
The U.S. government offers grants for agricultural research — many of which impact positively not only American food supply, diet, and sustainability, but food producers worldwide.
George Washington would be pleased!
Only in America, God bless it.