Big Data, Big Biology, Big Opportunities

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The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

In agricultural science today, standing still is the same as moving backwards. Since the mid-1800s, America’s Land Grant University system, built on the three pillar of teaching, research and extension, has effectively applied scientific advancement toward agricultural production to feed the growing global population. Today, faced with continued population growth, shrinking agricultural land, competition for mineral and water resources, climate change and environmental constraints, rapid advancements in science and technology offer the only hope for sustainably meeting global food demand.

Outlining those challenges and opportunities, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine identifies the most promising scientific breakthroughs for improving efficiency in food production over the next decade. The report, titled “Science Breakthroughs to Advance Food and Agricultural Research by 2030,” is available online.

In the report, the authors list five critical breakthroughs with potential to substantially increase agricultural efficiency and productivity, with all requiring a collaborative approach involving government, universities, industry and farmers. These include:

  1. A systems approach to understand the nature of interactions among the different elements of the food and agricultural system can be leveraged to increase overall system efficiency, resilience, and sustainability.
  2. The development and validation of highly sensitive, field-deployable sensors and biosensors will enable rapid detection and monitoring capabilities across various food and agricultural disciplines.
  3. The application and integration of data sciences, software tools, and systems models will enable advanced analytics for managing the food and agricultural system.
  4. The ability to carry out routine gene editing of agriculturally important organisms will allow for precise and rapid improvement of traits important for productivity and quality.
  5. Understanding the relevance of the microbiome to agriculture and harnessing this knowledge will improve crop production, transform feed efficiency, and increase resilience to stress and disease.

For animal agriculture specifically, the authors provide several recommendations for research priorities.

  • Enable better disease detection and management using a data-driven approach through the development and use of sensing technologies and predictive algorithms.
  • Accelerate genetic improvement in sustainability traits (such as fertility, improved feed efficiency, welfare, and disease resistance) in livestock, poultry, and aquaculture populations through the use of big genotypic and sequence datasets linked to field phenotypes and combined with genomics, advanced reproductive technologies, and precision breeding techniques.
  • Determine objective measures of sustainability and animal welfare, how those can be incorporated into precision livestock systems, and how the social sciences can inform and translate these scientific findings to promote consumer understanding of trade-offs and enable them to make informed purchasing decisions.

Capitalizing on these and other breakthroughs will need to involve scientists and engineers to develop, test and validate new technologies, consultants and Extension educators to facilitate commercial adoption of new methods, farmers willing to invest and challenge the status-quo and new generations of students to lead continued efforts in research and development, outreach, field application and on-farm data collection and evaluation.

“Realizing the vision this report recommends will require a holistic approach that combines scientific discovery, technological innovation, and incentives to revolutionize the way we approach greater food security and human and environmental health,” says committee co-chair John Floros, president, New Mexico State University. “It also will require significant public and private investments, funding that is currently inadequate to address critical breakthrough areas over the next decade.”

Find more information, including the full report, a summary, video and infographics at



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