An agricultural startup company’s focus on creating a mix of symbiotic microbes to boost crop yield is just one of a host of science-based advances needed to provide food for the nation and the world.
I read about such agricultural science advances recently while judging entries in the North American Agricultural Journalists’ annual writing contest. The category I was assigned by the contest coordinator is Special Projects in 2015 – coverage that “takes reporting to a higher level.” Indeed, they did.
The Progressive Farmer, an old-line farm publication, had the most entries, including one with multiple stories in an in-depth look at the issue of food security. The project cited a world at risk in a time when climate change requires flexibility by farmers to adapt to changing conditions for food production. The magazine interviewed farmers who already are changing their operations, plant scientists, climate scientists and economists.
What I found particularly interesting in these stories and stories in other contest entries that referred to climate change was that there was little equivocation – no dwelling on deniers; climate change is happening and farmers are already dealing with it.
Agriculture is accepting the science of climate change just as its practitioners accept the science of biology, microbiology, genetics, hydrology, veterinary medicine and all the other sciences that have supported the tremendous achievements of modern farming. They accept it because they see its effects already on their land just as surely as they see better yields from a new hybrid or a better system of planting that uses high tech analysis of their fields.
So how can it be that about one-third of our representatives in Congress deny the science of climate change – a percentage that rises sharply among Republican members of Congress?
How, we might ask, can Congress continue to lavish billions of dollars in public subsidies on an industry that is, by their lights, so badly misinformed about their business. That Congress continues to be so out of step on this issue complicates agriculture’s mission of dealing with what’s at stake.
What is at stake, according to Chemical & Engineering News, is that the world’s farmers will have to feed some 9.6 billion people by 2050, and that will require a 70 percent increase in agricultural production.
The C&EN contest entry says that this challenge represents an opportunity for venture capital. It cites a list of the promising categories being pursued by ag startup companies, including vaccine delivery, natural protects in crop protection, plant enzymes for animal health and biofuels, algae production, biotech crops, microbes and microbe groups for yield enhancement, robotics for automated weeding, specialty crops for biomass production and plant microbes that can promote stress tolerance.
For example, according to C&EN, by targeting a crop, a climate zone, and source of environmental stress resistance in a collection or so-called consortium of microbes, startup Symbiota can create a product from the consortium. “In the near term, it plans to produce seed coatings to give farmers a method that fits with machinery and practices already in use. When the plants germinate and grow, they incorporate the microbes into their tissues.” Yield improvements of up to 10 percent are seen as likely in corn, soybeans and wheat, the crops initially being targeted.
The partnership of government in such agricultural research is vital, just as it has been historically, especially in helping agriculture meet its challenge without damaging the environment. A Canadian entry described the complex research underway, for example, to determine the sources of phosphorous pollution from agricultural lands to assist drafting of regulation to prevent it. The project’s title: “An Ontario Phosphorous Reduction Strategy: Farm organizations seek a farmer-driven, science-based blueprint.”
Science is at the heart of agriculture’s challenge. Agriculture needs government support in meeting its great challenge. That support must include backing from Congress whose members must face up to the scientific facts, not just in agriculture, but in all the areas affected by climate change.