Scientists call for end to research silos for the future of agriculture
Iowa State University scientists have issued a call to action for a multidisciplinary approach to agricultural innovation, saying collaboration was the best way to solve some of the sector’s most pressing challenges.
In a recent paper on Crop Science, the scientists said researchers from fields like genetics, engineering and even economics could work together on large scale, multi-year collaborative experiments to improve efficiencies in crop production, among other things.
Such an approach would help accelerate advancements in the sector, which is necessary to meet anticipated future needs for food, feed, fiber and fuel.
“If we want to come up with totally novel ideas, we need people from other disciplines,” said one of the paper’s authors, Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, a professor of genetics, development and cell biology. Lawrence-Dill was quoted discussing the paper in an article on ISU this week.
“We need to bring in people in sociology and business and philosophy and governance and all these places you don’t normally think of when you’re having a conversation about increasing yields, let’s say.”
Lawrence-Dill and fellow authors noted in the paper that current efforts to meet future agricultural needs in an environmentally sustainable fashion were being held back by two overarching challenges:
- A critical lack of large-scale and publicly accessible datasets on plant performance across diverse environments. Without such datasets, scientists are unable to study how different genotypes and the environment interact to produce improved traits in a crop. Current research via specific field experiments are not only limited by years of lag time, but they also produce datasets that are difficult to integrate across experiments, research groups and species.
- “Ideas for how to achieve increased crop yields have become measurably harder to come by,” the authors said. Current ways to improve crop traits have already been exhausted by the industry. Pouring more resources into research has only resulted in diminishing returns, reducing the commercial viability of R&D in the sector.
Yet, the need for a package of solutions to create a sustainable future in agriculture continues to grow more urgent each day.
“Clearly, we must find ways to think differently if we are to continue to improve traits that allow us to grow high-yielding crops on less land with fewer inputs,” the authors said.
This need for a different, innovative approach to solving problems in agriculture formed the very foundation of the Genomes to Fields (G2F) initiative, a public-private partnership started in 2014 that Lawrence-Dill was involved in.
Lawrence-Dill noted that researchers have a tendency to stay within their “silos”, very few launching or participating in collaborative projects with those outside their areas of expertise.
But G2F was built on a different kind of model. It brought together a diverse group of researchers, engineers, economists from ISU and over 20 other academic and federal institutions to measure the performance of maize across diverse environments in North America. Their aim was to increase farmer profitability, yield stability and environmental sustainability, as well as make genomic data related to corn as widely available as possible.
The initiative’s biggest investments have been used to support field trials and shared experiments in more than 20 locations across North America. Working collaboratively and concurrently, participating researchers have conducted key studies on crop management best practices, corn varieties and their performances across various environments.
They release their discoveries annually, granting access to corn growers everywhere to key datasets that help them make better predictions, improve corn yields, as well as crop reliability.
The G2F example presents a strong business case for the benefits of multidisciplinary research collaborations in sparking new innovations in agriculture. The authors said outcomes from the initiative had relevance beyond the maize community and the G2F model could be replicated for experiments in other crops.
“It’s great fun,” Lawrence-Dill added. “When you bring in someone who works completely outside of your field, it’s never boring.”
G2F is currently urging others, especially economists and social scientists, interested in joining the initiative to come forward. The paper’s authors also welcomed inquiries on how to initiate and support research and training on broad scales, for application in other crop experiments.
“New ideas and approaches are needed to meet demands for agriculture into the future. To generate these new ideas, it is critical to expand our community and ways of thinking,” they said.
“We call on you to spread this message and request that you and your colleagues visit the G2F website. From there, you can reach out to members of the G2F Executive Committee to find out how to join the initiative or to learn how to apply methods, tools, and community-building perspectives developed for G2F to your favorite crop.”