• Climate change and Dairy Farming: Beating the Heat

    By Ananda Fontoura, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow   Imagine cattle living in Brazil, where temperatures range from 95 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, suffering from grave heat exposure. Fast shallow breathing, profusely sweating, drooling and panting as they overheat, walking less, looking for shade and drinking triple the amount of water. As a practicing veterinarian in Pará State, this was an unforgettable sight I couldn’t unsee. Heat stress isn’t just an abstract problem. Cattle undergo major physiological changes to survive extreme heat, similar to how the human body responds to a run on a hot summer’s day. Their cardiovascular system constricts as blood supply diverts from the vital organs towards the periphery. While this is a great way to increase body cooling, it interrupts oxygen supply to the intestines. Reduced oxygen disturbs the intestinal cells. In consequence, contents that once were inside the intestines such as bacteria, are released into the blood circulation. This syndrome - known as “leaky-gut” - is one of the many challenges that climate change brings to dairy farming. Heat stress is not a challenge that only cattle in Brazil face, it is global issue affecting agricultural systems across the world. In the United States, heat stress can cost the dairy industry a staggering $1.5 billion dollars annually. Recent predictions project those economic losses may rise an additional $126 million over the next 50 years. These financial losses are driven by reduced milk production, pregnancy losses, disease and in severe cases, death. At Cornell University, I am investigating the interactions between the gut microbiome and heat stress to define the role that gut microbes play in explaining the physiology of heat stress. This will help us understand why some animals are more heat resilient than others and enable researchers to develop nutritional therapies that mitigate the effects of heat stress. Currently, we are exploring organic acids and plant botanicals as dietary supplements for lactating dairy cows. These compounds are known for their intestinal healing properties in poultry and swine production but require testing in cattle. Organic acids and plant botanicals are naturally-occurring and represent one of the ways to improve the welfare of cattle, enhance gut health and potentially lower antibiotic usage in dairy herds. During the initial phase of my research program, our team took care of 62 dairy calves undergoing heat stress, supplementing their diet with different dietary levels of organic acids and botanicals. In this phase, we identified the best dose to further explore as we move forward to the next phase of testing: supplementing lactating cows. Looking forward to the next stage, we can test whether our preliminary results in calves are similar in cows. As data analyses unfold, stay tuned for our beat the heat updates! Agriculture isn’t a one-person job and for that I am very fortunate to have the sponsorship from FFAR and my industry sponsor, VetAgro Inc. I am also grateful to have the support of mentors through the FFAR Fellows program, as well as the technical expertise and research excellence from my supervisors and advisory committee. The approaches I am taking during my program represent sustainable alternatives to alleviate effects of heat stress, improve health and performance of dairy cows, and ultimately ensure that good quality products are put on the consumer’s table.


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  • Combating Herbicide Resistance

    By Abby Barker: FFAR Fellow If you have ever cared for a garden or a lawn, you know weeds are pesky plants that show up every year without fail. While they come in many shapes and sizes, weeds generally share some characteristics: fast growth, competitive, high seed production, genetic diversity and that one thing that universally defines them— their presence where we don’t want them. Weeds are not limited to your yard though; they are a pressing issue for farmers globally and they threaten our food supply. The main difference between a homeowner and a farmer’s problem with weeds is that instead of a few square yards of garden, the average American farmer has about 450 acres of land to weed. That’s equivalent to 300 football fields! With that much area to cover, farmers largely rely on herbicides for weed management. These tend to be one of the cheapest and most reliable options farmers have in their tool belt. Yet over the past 50 years, we have learned the consequences of the overuse of some herbicides. The result? Herbicide-resistant weeds that compete with crops and threaten farm viability. This is where my research comes in. Weeds cannot move away when something harmful, like an herbicide, threatens them. Weeds have evolved to achieve various resistance mechanisms. I study something called target site resistance. Through random mutations, which occur naturally in all organisms, the protein in the weed that the herbicide targets has been structurally changed such that the weed is no longer affected. This resistant protein is then expressed throughout the plant, providing the whole plant with resistance. Weeds that carry such a mutation will survive an herbicide treatment and propagate, spreading this resistance trait to the next generation. Remember our 300 football fields? In just a few generations these resistant plants can spread seeds over that entire farm and beyond to infest neighboring farms. The good news is that having a resistant weed problem isn’t the end of the story. Researchers like me determine what is causing that resistance and work to give farmers solutions to control the weeds. I am investigating why certain herbicides still effectively control emerging weed seedlings even though those same plants will survive if sprayed when they are only a few weeks older. Discovering why this occurs, allows us to recommend more effective weed management practices. My research examines the levels of the resistant protein and protective factors in the plants, such as antioxidants, at different stages of growth development. Once I identify the cause of this age-dependent differential resistance, we will use this information to advise farmers on how to control the resistant populations, and possibly make more effective herbicide formulations that can overcome the resistance. In this way, we may be able to help farmers use these herbicides in a manner that is less costly—both in dollars to the farmer and the cost of herbicide resistant weeds to our agriculture. As weed scientists, our goal is to control weeds sustainably. We study resistance mechanisms in weeds in order to better steward our remaining herbicide options and bring in new weed control tools that aren’t chemically based. I enjoy the challenge of studying species that are constantly adapting to new environments and control mechanisms. We can learn so much about evolutionary mechanisms in such a short period of time with these insanely resilient plants. I am grateful to the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and my industry sponsor, Valent, for supporting my continued research and participation in the FFAR Fellows program. As someone interested in having a career in industry, mentorship from my sponsor and having a peer group of FFAR Fellows interested in the same professional goals has been invaluable.


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  • Understanding Emergency Food Systems in the era of COVID-19

    By Rebecca Gyawu & John Reich Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across the nation were already facing many hardships, including food and nutritional insecurity. The pandemic is worsening these hardships and making more people food insecure as unemployment increases, resulting in more people relying on emergency food systems. At FFAR, we wondered how best to address the root causes of food and nutritional insecurity, rather than simply reacting to them. The challenge is that numerous funders and community organizations across the country are doing the hard work of addressing food and nutritional insecurity in communities – and they have been doing so for decades. While progress has been made, why do these problems still exist? It is partly because the problem is complex. It is hard to “solve” food and nutritional insecurities when these problems are intertwined with so many other issues, including employment, health, education, transportation, food access – just to name a few. FFAR builds public-private partnerships to fund food and agriculture challenges. As a scientific research funder, we saw an opportunity to increase our understanding of the food system, and the relationships within that system, to pinpoint high-impact investment areas. With scarce resources to address food and nutritional insecurity, a better understanding of which investments will lead to the most positive change could make a world of difference to current and future populations. Hence, we created the Tipping Points Program. LEVERAGING FFAR-FUNDED RESEARCH The five Tipping Points projects span different dimensions of the food system. The program funds five projects in communities across the US to optimize investments in low-income communities and understand how local policies impact the local food system and regional farmers. While the researchers have different foci and serve diverse communities, they all engage with community organizations and the communities themselves to propel the development of data-driven models. The models aim to understand which investments are going to be the most impactful, and the positive and negative consequences of those investments. Two years into the program, some of the projects are discovering that investments outside the traditional food and nutritional security sector may have the most impact. In the future, we hope that the insights from these models can lead to more equitable, just and sustainable food systems. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to understand the food system as a whole to ensure vulnerable populations are not left behind as more people are relying on the emergency food system, taxing an already stretched system. Given our researchers’ relationships within their communities and their appreciation for the interconnectedness of the food systems, FFAR sees an opportunity to understand how the emergency food system is reacting to this crisis, and where investments can help the most vulnerable. To capture this information, FFAR is providing additional support – about $100,000 to each project. Many of the Tipping Points researchers are learning from each other as well as collaborating with Feeding America to use their food insecurity data. As we move forward, we are exploring ways for our grantees to communicate the lessons they are learning to organizations fighting hunger and to also learn from others in this field.


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  • Even the longest journey starts with one little step

    By Francesco Cappai Hello reader, let me introduce myself. I am Francesco Cappai, an Italian student currently pursuing a Ph. D. in the US at the University of Florida and a FFAR Fellow. I would like to share my story with special attention to our younger colleagues interested in pursuing a career in agricultural sciences who might find themselves wondering “Can my job make a difference?”. I started studying plants about 10 years ago. Back then, I had absolutely no idea where my career would take me. Life seems to always surprise you if you are open to change. After obtaining my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Italy and the Netherlands, I was recruited by the University of Florida for my Ph. D During my studies, I realized how big of an impact our research can have on people’s lives. Academic research is a diverse spectrum in terms of applicability: some projects have immediate noticeable impact; some look more theoretical. I personally like to be involved in applied projects, but before I continue, I would like to point out how crucial fundamental (or theoretical) research is. Everyday, to advance my project, I need to fish from the pool of advanced technical knowledge in my field. This knowledge is the very foundation of my research, and I would not be able to make any progress if it did not exist. The main goal of my Ph. D. is to improve berry firmness of blueberry, one of America’s most beloved and healthy fruits. As a consumer, you can probably imagine why berry firmness matters. Would you buy a clamshell full of wrinkly berries if it were sitting right next to one full of plump ones? Probably not, as most of us like to eat fruit with a crisp and fresh texture. However, the impact of firmness goes far beyond the enjoyability of your eating experience. In fact, the main reason we are interested in berry firmness is related to the process blueberries go through to finally land on your table. A remarkable 50-80 percent of money spent producing blueberries goes into hand-harvesting berries. Manual labor costs vary from country to country. In the US they can be 10 times as high as they are in neighboring countries, a situation further exacerbated by growing limitations in labor import due to several factors, including the current political landscape. As you can imagine, harvest costs are a  major consideration for US-based growers as they are quickly outcompeted. This is where berry firmness comes into play. Firmer berries can withstand intense handling and can be picked using mechanical harvesters, dramatically decreasing production costs. Also, firmer berries are less susceptible to decay and have longer shelf life, two traits deeply linked to decreasing waste along the supply chain. When I started working on blueberries, I did not know that my research could make such a difference. This awareness can be a great motivation for many of us. For me it is. I like to feel that my work can directly contribute to improving the livelihood of farmers all over world. I would also like to highlight a trend that makes me proud of my generation, as I feel that farming is a noble occupation that has long been underappreciated. Awareness of the importance of farming is growing among my peers. More and more young men and women are returning to growing plants, in fields or in mini urban plots. This gives me hope that in the future we will have additional tools and support to tackle the increasing challenges posed by climate change, overpopulation and globalization. Agriculture and plant sciences offer an expanding platform for your professional and personal ambitions. Opportunities are especially arising for those who like to engage both in “hard” science and outreach activities so start exploring the advantages of a multi-disciplinary education and approach to problem solving.


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  • Feedback Loops and Food Access

    By Gwendolyn Donley, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow We see cycles of problems and solutions in our everyday lives. For example, when I’m happy, I play with my dog, Koschei, more, and when I play with Koschei more, I become happier. This is an example of a reinforcing feedback loop – events or behaviors linked in a way to amplify or balance each other over time. Some cycles, such as those aptly named “balancing feedback loops,” balance out over time ]. When I’m hungry, I eat. After I eat, I’m not hungry, so I stop eating for a while. And so the cycle continues. We live in a world of balancing and reinforcing loops pulling us toward an equilibrium. Right now, we’re experiencing disruptions to our normal equilibrium with system-wide shifts brought on by COVID-19. So, what does this have to do with food? Well, you may have heard of so-called food deserts, referring to areas without access to a full-service grocery store within a certain distance. Living in an area without a proximal grocery store has been linked to increased risk of diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease.1-4 In Cleveland, Ohio, 60 percent of residents live in such areas.5 Given this information, it’s natural that researchers and policymakers turn towards increasing the availability of healthy foods as a solution for diet-related disparities. However, research has increasingly shown that these fixes do not have the sustained impact that we would like to see.6-8 This is not because increasing the availability of healthy foods is not important! On the contrary, it’s more important than ever. However, people live complex lives in complex communities. Changing one aspect of someone’s environment isn’t necessarily enough to change the outcome. A few years ago, our Case Western Reserve University researchers realized this and, with the support of a FFAR Tipping Points grant, collaborated with two dozen local food system stakeholders to reconceptualize what the food system actually is. What contributes to food security, economic opportunity, and fair access to fresh and healthy foods? Over the past two years, we’ve been trying to answer these questions. We’ve formed dozens of models of our urban food system, called causal loop diagrams, developed through engagement with our team of residents in nearby communities, food business owners, food bank representatives, researchers, and policymakers. Additionally, I worked with another researcher to collect individual interviews with residents, food retailers, and policy and funding regulators to dive deeper into food system concepts. What we’ve learned from all this is that food systems are really complex! As one interviewee put it, “What makes a healthy food system?...That’s kind of hard to even single out because it takes…because it’s so many other pieces.” Just as one thing alone does not make a system healthy, one solution alone cannot fully address inequities. We have now come to realize that several components are critical for a healthy food system to flourish, but we often don’t include these in our interventions. For example, job security is essential; if I don’t have a job, then I won’t have enough money to buy the food my family needs, my health will worsen, and I’ll have a harder time finding another job. Another key variable is incarceration; in areas with high incarceration, individuals reentering society will face challenges in finding jobs, will rely more heavily on government assistance, and will be less likely to achieve economic independence, which promotes fuller access to fresh and healthy foods. Our next steps are to learn how we can translate our food system models into testable scenarios and to try out different food system interventions in our models to assess potential impact. I can’t say what we’ll find, but I can say that the best solutions will address multiple aspects of the problem, will be community-driven and community-engaged, and may have wide-reaching impacts beyond the food system! The FFAR Fellows program, through professional development training in skills mastery and interpersonal communications, is helping me learn how to reach a wide range of audiences with this work, including everyone from policymakers to researchers to local community members. I give many thanks to my advisor, Dr. Darcy Freedman, our project funders, and to the FFAR Fellows Program for supporting my growth to become a leader in food systems research and practice.   Dubowitz T, Zenk SN, Ghosh-Dastidar B, et al. Healthy food access for urban food desert residents: examination of the food environment, food purchasing practices, diet and BMI. Public Health Nutr. 2015;18(12):2220–2230. doi:10.1017/S1368980014002742 Whitham D. Nutrition for the prevention and treatment of chronic kidney disease in diabetes. Can J Diabetes. 2014 Oct;38(5):344-8. Shagdarsuren T, Nakamura K, McCay L. Association between perceived neighborhood environment and health of middle-aged women living in rapidly changing urban Mongolia. Environ Health Prev Med. 2017 May 31;22(1):50. Garfinkel-Castro A, Kim K, Hamidi S, Ewing R. Obesity and the built environment at different urban scales: examining the literature. Nutr Rev. 2017 Jan;75(suppl 1):51-61. Cuyahoga County Board of Health. Cuyahoga County Supermarket Assessment: 2018 Inventory Update. March 8, 2019. Freedman DA, Bell BA, Clark J, et al. Small Improvements in an Urban Food Environment Resulted in No Changes in Diet Among Residents [published online ahead of print, 2020 Mar 13]. Cummins S, Flint E, Matthews SA. New neighborhood grocery store increased awareness of food access but did not alter dietary habits or obesity. Health Aff (Millwood). 2014;33(2):283–91. Elbel B, Moran A, Dixon LB, Kiszko K, Cantor J, Abrams C, et al. Assessment of a government-subsidized supermarket in a high-need area on household food availability and children’s dietary intakes. Public Health Nutr. 2015:1–10.  


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  • Research is Critical to Preventing the Next Pandemic

    By Dr. Tim Kurt a Scientific Program Director at FFAR The COVID-19 pandemic in humans is caused by a virus that originated in bats, likely passed through an intermediate species and has now infected at least two house cats and eight exotic big cats at the Bronx Zoo. This does not mean that you should immediately quarantine your pets; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information about keeping you and your pets safe. This news prompts numerous questions about the science behind diseases that spread from humans to animals, a class of diseases known as zoonoses. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the reality that human and animal health is interconnected and that cross-species transmissions can have devastating global health consequences, making it imperative that we invest in research to prevent future incidents. Zoonotic diseases are far more common than you might think. In my lifetime, and I’m not quite 40, the world has witnessed several outbreaks of zoonotic diseases including HIV/AIDS, which crossed from chimps to humans in the 1920s in Africa but wasn’t identified until 1981. The Nipah virus was detected in Malaysia in 1998 and spread to humans from bats via infected pigs. More recently, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spread from bats or civet cats to humans in 2002, avian influenza emerged from poultry in Asia in 2003, and swine flu, first detected in Mexico in 2009 was a combination of bird, pig and human influenza viruses. And don’t forget Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has been linked to camels and was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Genetic sleuthing suggests that Ebola, which spread across Africa in recent years, likely jumped from bats or nonhuman primates to humans. It is still unclear which wildlife species may be susceptible to COVID-19, or what might happen if the virus recombines with naturally occurring coronaviruses in those species – an unsettling knowledge gap. I got my start studying another major group of zoonotic diseases that includes mad cow (a prion disease), which jumped from cows to humans in 1996. As a veterinary scientist, I studied the mechanisms underlying susceptibility to cross-species transmission of this group of diseases. One of the discoveries I found most disconcerting – albeit fascinating – was that some pathogens can change dramatically upon transmission to a new species. This means that, in some cases, the pathogen can become infectious to new hosts, depending on their genetic background, making it extremely challenging to predict the movement of diseases between and across human and animal populations. We may be witnessing this same phenomenon in COVID-19, as the virus is widely believed to have originated in bats, crossed to an intermediate host, and has now spread rapidly to infect millions of humans globally. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund audacious research addressing the biggest challenges in food and agriculture, including epidemic diseases. In response to COVID-19, FFAR is supporting Veterinary Fellowships to conduct zoonotic disease and agricultural productivity research, including economic modeling to bolster the food supply and producers during crises. Limited funding exists to support experiential learning opportunities in the agricultural sciences for future veterinary scientists. To meet this critical unmet need, FFAR is waiving the matching requirement for the FFAR Veterinary Fellows program this year, as we believe that training the next generation of veterinary scientists to predict, prevent and respond to pandemics like COVID-19 is critical for the U.S. food and agriculture community. Cross-species, multi-disciplinary research is important to preventing and responding to current and future pandemics, while also providing the peace of mind that our food supply is safe and secure. The public relies on farmers and ranchers for safe and affordable food; the least we can do is support farmers and ranchers, and the public, with the best science we can offer. Dr. Tim Kurt is a Scientific Program Director at FFAR who oversees research programs in the animal and veterinary sciences, as well as the FFAR Vet Fellows training program for veterinary students to conduct research in agricultural production and zoonotic diseases.


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  • Vitamin A, Healthy Cows, and Less Antibiotics

    By Jaime Strickland, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. That link between health and diet applies not only to people, but also to animals.  As a FFAR Fellow, I am researching the role between the diet and health of dairy cows, specifically the role of vitamin A. Birthing and producing milk is the most difficult time for a cow, as it requires unbelievable amounts of energy and stresses her body. In fact, some cows may require more than 4.5 times the energy when producing milk than a cow at maintenance, meaning that she could consume as many as 40,000 calories a day. Scientists call this the “fresh period,” when a cow is most likely to become sick. Inflammation, or redness, swelling and pain, is a necessary function during the fresh period that allows the cow to repair damaged tissue as well as fight infection. Humans experience inflammation when they injure themselves. You may have experienced this if you’ve ever burned yourself while cooking. The burn becomes very red and painful, which may seem alarming, but it is just the body’s way of healing itself. The problem for cows during the fresh period is that there are so many physical and metabolic changes occurring that a normal, healthy inflammatory response can run amok and cause damage. A run-a-way inflammatory response can lead to diseases such as a mammary gland infection called mastitis. Mastitis is commonly treated with antibiotics, and in fact, is responsible for the bulk of antibiotic use in adult cows. So, if mastitis can be prevented, antibiotic use on farms can be reduced. Where does vitamin A come in? Vitamin A is an essential vitamin for both cows and humans. It turns out that research in humans has found that vitamin A has significant effects on inflammation. You may have used vitamin A to treat acne and it is even used to treat certain types of cancer. In cows, however, we are not sure about the benefits of vitamin A. Much like you make take a daily multivitamin, cows are fed supplemental vitamins and minerals every day. There is surprisingly little research on what doses of vitamin A can optimize health in cows and even less on how vitamin A might improve the inflammatory response. On top of this, during the fresh period a large proportion of cows have deficient blood levels of vitamin A. How is my researching attempting to solve this problem? I’m first looking at what diseases are associated with decreased blood levels of vitamin A in the fresh period. By focusing on specific conditions that may be associated with low vitamin A, I can then use that information to build models using cultured cow cells in the lab to help determine HOW vitamin A may improve cow health. Once I have a better understanding of how vitamin A works in cows, I will test that theory by giving cows different amounts of vitamin A so that we can pinpoint the concentration that results in the healthiest cows. In the end, I hope to find a better way to feed cows so that they do not become sick in the first place. Fewer sick cows will not only result in happier cows and farmers, but it will also reduce antibiotic use on farms. Why I wanted to be a FFAR Fellow: After 10 years of studying science I still do not think that I have all the skills that I need to succeed in my career. I am so excited to be proactive in my efforts to improve my leadership and communication skills through this fellowship. My professional goals include finding novel methods for improving health in dairy cows through nutrition and then being able to teach and share that knowledge with students and the general public. The FFAR fellowship is helping give me the tools that I will need to be able to effectively share my research.


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  • Can biochar help adapt agriculture to a hotter, dryer climate?

    By Shelby Hoglund, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow Vineyard in Sonoita, AZ with biochar application near rows of vines, March 2019. Let’s talk about desert agriculture. Warning: you may feel thirsty. Agriculture in the arid Southwestern United States is productive year-round, with conditions that permit crops to grow the entire year. But with a predicted hotter, dryer climate looming in the near future, desert agriculture faces challenges. My research addresses climate change adaptation through soil health. A key component of healthy soil is its organic matter. Organic matter—the part of the soil made up of decomposing plant and animal residue—is particularly important in arid environments because it acts like a sponge to hold water. The water content in soil affects microbial activity, which plays a key role in soil nutrient cycling. Soil microorganisms unlock nutrients for plants to absorb, increasing productivity. Soils with a very low amount of organic matter will retain little water because the “sponge” is missing. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service calculated that increasing soil organic matter by just 1% can increase the amount of water that soil can retain by 25,000 gallons per acre! Okay, I’m sold! Where can I get this soil organic matter? Well, animal manures and compost are high in organic matter and make an excellent soil amendment. However, those materials may only last a few years in soils because microorganisms enjoy feasting on them, and the extreme desert climate either blows them away in the wind or cooks them with heat and UV radiation. But we have an alternative. There is a material made from organic waste that will stay in the soil for much longer—decades to centuries instead of a few years—while also benefiting water-holding capacity, organic matter content, and nutrient retention. This material is biochar. Biochar is created by recycling organic waste through a process that heats up the material to temperatures as high as 1,000 °C. The intense heat occurs in a chamber without oxygen, which means that about half the carbon (a key ingredient in organic matter) becomes a stable material rather than turning into carbon dioxide; the carbon remains carbon, while also producing liquid hydrocarbon byproducts that can be used as fuel. But how much biochar do farmers need to apply in order for their soil to retain more water? How much is too much? What other benefits or detriments exist? I am studying these effects and will share the results with farmers. I have several field sites where I am quantifying the effects of adding biochar in different amounts to arid agricultural soils in southern Arizona to understand changes in variables important for crop growth such as soil moisture levels, soil microbial activity, and pH. One field site is at a grape vineyard in Sonoita, Arizona, where the focus is to increase plant-available nutrients by calling on agriculture’s biggest team of volunteers: soil microorganisms. How do we get them to come out and help? We can provide a “sponge” that holds water for them for the dry periods between irrigation. We hypothesize that adding biochar to the soil will help the soil retain irrigation water for longer. At another field site, I am growing wheat in a field with plots that contain either co-composted biochar or a blend of mature compost with biochar. Why wheat? Wheat is commonly grown in southern Arizona following alfalfa and prior to cotton. Many biochar studies observe the boost that biochar can provide to crop yield. This field study is a bit different and somewhat harsher to the plants: I plan to irrigate the field so that plots have a 50% irrigation deficit, 25% irrigation deficit, or no deficit (100% of the normal irrigation). Over time, I will compare the microbial activity in the soil, the soil moisture content, and the wheat plant response between the different plots. This work can help us determine how biochar can maintain crop yield while reducing farmers need to irrigate. My research goals are becoming a reality thanks to the support of my advisor, Dr. Joseph Blankinship, my industry sponsor, Arizona Vignerons Alliance, and the FFAR Fellows program.


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  • Food for the Future: How Artificial Intelligence Can Improve Drought Resistance

    By Kevin Xie, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow The surface of a corn leaf. The stomata cells are light green and sink deeper into the leaf surface. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide (CO2); plants do the opposite. But how, exactly, do plants “breathe”? My interest in plants traces way back to when I was in grade school. I was given some ugly seeds to sow in pots on the balcony of my home and was amazed when spectacular flowers grew over the following months. Since then, I have enjoyed growing plants as a hobby and later further redirected my research interest into crops to help breeding for the future warmer and drier environment. Understanding how plants “breathe” is a key step in knowing how efficient they can produce. The “mouths” of plants are called stomata. These cells on leaf surfaces form pores that allow CO2 to enter the inner leaf space where photosynthesis occurs. However, it’s not a situation of “the more mouths, the better”. A critical trade-off exists. As CO2 is flowing into the leaf, water vapor inevitably flows out. The loss of water vapor from leaves accounts for more than 95 percent of water uptake by plants. If the water supply runs out, the stomata must close to prevent the plant from drying out. This prevents photosynthesis from making sugars that fuel the plant, which can lead to crop failure. Part of my research as a graduate student at the University of Illinois and as a 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow, is to decrease stomata conductance through plant breeding to create crops that lose less water and are more drought-tolerant. My work is focused on this question: Can we find a good balance point where plants capture the most CO2 possible while using the least possible amount of water? Farmers are most eager to know the answers to this question so that they could save investment in irrigation and have more stable harvest when a dry year occurs. To answer this question, we as researchers must accurately measure the number and size of stomatal pores. For a long time, measuring these traits was complicated, tedious and time-consuming. It involved painting the leaf with nail polish and peeling off an imprint of the cells in the nail polish, followed by endless manual counting and measuring under the microscope. This strategy was inefficient and made it complicated for researchers to accurately collect data. This is where machine learning can offer a more efficient solution. In my research, I labeled the stomata and fed the coordinates into the computer along with this image. The computer extracted the features of the images, enabling the computer to recognize what stomata features look like. This process was repeated and improved over various cycles. After letting the program run for about one day, I finally had a mathematical model that could be used to identify and count stomata in new images. The summary of the outputs gave me the location coordinates of each stomatal pore and its size. With that in hand, my team was able to scale-up and easily run the model on thousands of images. The real-world implications for this new process are profound and will significantly impact food and agriculture research. For example, I am now using this tool to identify regions of DNA in the corn genome where genetics drives variation in the number of stomata and water use efficiency in different varieties of the crop. This is a necessary step towards downstream gene function evaluation and integration to existing elite germplasms, allowing them to gain better performance in drought-tolerance and water use efficiency. The backbone of the algorithm is Mask R-CNN, which is one of the latest computer science programs designed for object detection. This well-annotated framework allowed me, a crop sciences graduate student with no background in coding, to implement the algorithm, build my own model and answer my scientific questions. For anyone who is interested in similar topics (do you want to track down your pet dog from a home camera?), learn some basic Python and Linux and give it a try yourself! None of this would have happened without the amazing support from both FFAR and Bayer. Being a part of the first cohort of FFAR Fellows has been an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience.


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  • Milkweeds: Medicine for Monarchs?

    By Annie Krueger, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow Imagine a world where farmers could no longer use most insecticides, had limited access to herbicides and that these setbacks were caused by a…


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