We now have a roadmap for a second green revolution

By Jenna Gallegos

July 18, 2018

Imagine a future where agriculture depends not just on crops and livestock, but artificial intelligence, mobile apps, microbes and good old-fashioned teamwork.

That’s the scenario envisioned by a committee of scientists, who last summer were recruited by the National Academy of Sciences to answer one question: What key advances over the next decade are essential to feed 8.6 billion people by 2030?

Today they released “Science Breakthroughs 2030,” a report with input from nearly 150 experts from different disciplines on the critical research needed to transform food and agriculture. And while there’s plenty of talk about more resilient plants and animals, the report highlights several areas of research that are less intuitive.

High time for a breakthrough

“Science Breakthroughs 2030” has been called agriculture’s moonshot and Green Revolution 2.0. The first Green Revolution ushered in a suite of new technologies that increased crop yields dramatically. The rate of increase has since begun to stagnate, and recent yield-boosting solutions have been accompanied by novel problems.

A few strong-performing crops replaced several less dependable varieties, leaving our homogenous food supply more susceptible to disease. The pesticides and fertilizers that helped stave off famines have also come with costs — financial and environmental. And while yields continue to grow, the world’s population has grown faster, and climate change has introduced a new suite of challenges unappreciated in the post-World War II era of the original Green Revolution.

Meanwhile, funding for and interest in agricultural research has not kept pace with the rising challenges. “The ag[riculture] and food sector has been under-funded for decades,” said committee co-chair Sue Wessler in a webinar releasing the report. International funding for agricultural research, on the other hand, has increased dramatically, particularly in India and China, she said.

The report’s release is timely as the 2018 farm bill is queued up for a Congressional Conference. The National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation saw unprecedented increases in funding this year. Science Breakthroughs 2030 could help funding for agricultural research receive the same attention.

Five key advancements

The report breaks the critical advancements into five key areas:

  1. Science is not enough

The global food system is, well, a system, and it’s a big one. To tackle a systems problem, we need a systems approach. That means transdisciplinary teamwork between many types of scientists, economists, regulators, behavioral psychologists and more.

That’s tougher than it sounds. Researchers in different fields speak different languages and getting them to work together “requires a cultural shift,” said committee member Corrie Brown. Concentrated efforts are needed to help bring diverse experts together to solve a common problem. “Funding agencies are going to have to hold hands,” she added.

  1. Plant and animal diagnostics

Sensors for monitoring the health of crops in the field or chickens in a poultry barn have been around for a while. But these technologies aren’t that widely used and their capabilities could be greatly expanded.

The Science Breakthroughs team imagines a future where mobile apps connected to smart devices could alert farmers in real time to animals that are sick or particular areas in a field that need water.

  1. Data for days

All these sensors and GPS monitoring systems will generate a lot of data. All that data is a wealth of information that takes some serious computing power to tap.

Agriculture needs an informatics revolution. In addition to attracting talented data scientists, new technologies such as artificial intelligence could be developed to help manage and learn from agricultural data.

  1. Gene editing

Not surprisingly, gene editing will continue to play a major role in the future of agriculture. Gene editing allows scientists to tap the genetic potential of wild species and tweak specific traits without muddying up the gene pool by breeding our best stock with less desirable relatives.

New gene editing technologies such as CRISPR will help scientists develop crops that are resistant to pests and pathogens, more nutritious and adapted to the changing climate. CRISPR can also help address animal welfare issues and decrease the environmental footprint of meat production.

  1. Look to the bacteria

Plants and animals aren’t the only creatures critical to our food system. Bacteria team up with crops to take up soil nutrients and help cows digest grasses.

We are just beginning to understand the positive impact that our own microbiomes have on human health, and plant and animal microbiome research is a ways behind.

If we understand agricultural microbiomes, we can make changes that shift the system in favor of the good bugs; that means plants and animals that are more resistant to pathogens and use nutrients more efficiently.

Looking forward

The two words that epitomize the committee’s discussion today are resilient and sustainable. We need convergent, transdisciplinary initiatives to advance our understanding of agricultural systems and develop new technologies to produce resilient crops and livestock in a way that is more sustainable than what has become the status quo.

Continued investment in the cooperative extension system is also essential to make sure novel technologies and cultural shifts are implemented. Finally, a renewed emphasis on training the next generation of food and agricultural scientists is essential for replacing the aging workforce and filling jobs that already have high vacancies at every level of this sector.

Most importantly, funding for agricultural research needs to match the magnitude of the challenges ahead. Because, as committee co-chair John Floros put it, “just because we have an abundant food supply today does not mean we will have an abundant food supply tomorrow.”