Editor’s Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the US agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.
Throughout much of U.S. history, farmers have benefited from agricultural research. These investments made by public sector institutions generate agricultural research findings and disseminate their results widely. The key trio of such institutions were established during the mid- 19th and early 20th centuries—land-grant universities, to educate students and train agricultural professionals, agricultural research stations, to develop state-specific innovations, and the cooperative extension system, to disseminate information about new technology and practices to farmers and ranchers.
Over the last century and a half, researchers and extension staff employed within these institutions helped to develop and distribute to farmers such innovations as hybrid corn, improved hog genetics, conventionally bred wheat and rice varieties intended for shorter growing seasons or to resist pests or diseases, end-use enhanced crops such as high oleic soybeans, precision agriculture techniques, and conservation practices such as strip tillage and riparian buffers.
In recent decades, however, the emergence of private sector research has meant that basic research that often involves developing scientific tools occurs within public institutions, and then those tools are utilized in laboratories operated by life science companies to develop innovative crop and animal varieties. For example, a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, was one of the two scientists honored this year with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology about a decade ago. This technique is now being used by companies around the world to create improved varieties of seeds and animals. So far, they have produced crops with specific traits such as mushrooms and apples that don’t turn brown as readily after being exposed to open air, and “waxy” corn with higher starch content for use in food or industrial applications.
Public-private partnerships, especially between university and private company scientists, are a relatively new path for undertaking agricultural research efforts. Many universities, including land-grant institutions such Iowa State University and Cornell University now ‘incubate’ start-up firms with facilities and support services, aiming to assist those firms in developing new innovations for use in agriculture and other sectors. Work done at the Iowa State Research Park by Fort Dodge Animal Health (now part of Pfizer) helped to develop the first approved vaccine for West Nile virus for horses in 2005.
These efforts demonstrate the crucial complementary nature of these two sets of institutions and the importance of having both public and private sector agricultural research flourish in the U.S. Toward that end, we need to bolster public spending on agricultural research, which has stalled in recent years. Failure to do so will result in the US falling behind major competitors such as Brazil and China.
As described above, today’s agricultural research scene is more complicated than it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but access to the results of vigorous research by both the private and public sectors is more important than ever to farmers.
Bryant Agricultural Enterprise, a third-generation farm located in south central Ohio, provides a good example.
Since 2013, the farm has been closely tracking input use and output generated from each of the various fields they cultivate through use of precision technology, allowing them to apply inputs such as fertilizer and seed on fields at a variable rate that closely matches each field’s productivity potential. In addition, their inventory management procedures would allow their crops to be traced from the time of harvest from individual fields until the shipment reaches its final destination, such as corn to nearby ethanol plants or a food processing plant in Japan for their non-GMO soybeans, although at this time their customers do not avail themselves of this full capacity. This effort has allowed them to reduce their expenditures on inputs.
Bryant Agricultural Enterprise also hosted 32 different on-farm trials for various private companies during this crop year, including a trial for applying liquefied chicken manure as fertilizer on a corn field by the firm EnviroKure, and a separate trial for BASF, seeking to raise wheat in Ohio using the same cultivation practices as European farmers are currently employing. While the farm does not receive significant financial compensation for hosting these trials, they do benefit from the opportunity to glean early intelligence about new innovations or practices that may be coming down the pike.
On-farm trials also encompassed experiments by Indigo Agriculture, an agricultural technology company based in Massachusetts, to test various mixtures of seeds for their performance as cover crops. Over the next few years, Bryant Agricultural Enterprise also plans to look into the use of drones and/or satellite imagery to provide near real time information to help them scout conditions in individual fields for early detection of crop pests or diseases. All of these technologies and investments – through public and private sources – seek to help farmers continue to adapt (and thrive) in the ever-changing world of agriculture.
Dr. Stephanie Mercier is a Senior Policy Adviser at the Farm Journal Foundation. An Iowa native, Dr. Mercier has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Washington University in St. Louis and a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Iowa State University.
Kasey Bryant Bamberger is a third-generation partner in Bryant Agricultural Enterprise, a corn, soybean, and wheat production farm located in southwest Ohio. Kasey is a Farm Journal Foundation Farmer Ambassador.
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