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Carnegie Mellon professor works on National Academies committee to identify key science breakthroughs for agriculture

Alexandra George

As we navigate through the 21st century, the future of agriculture in the United States faces many critical challenges—stress on natural resources, changing climates, food waste, and diseases that threaten crops. To tackle these challenges and make agriculture resilient, sustainable, and meet future food demands, the agriculture and food industries need 21st century technology and scientific breakthroughs.

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently formed a committee to investigate these challenges and identify potential solutions to those challenges. Greg Lowry, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, served on this committee. He and other committee members briefed Congress and the Senate on the report's strategy and key findings. He also helped present the report to the public in a webinar.

The committee was tasked with identifying the greatest challenges facing agriculture and the most promising scientific opportunities for addressing those challenges. The report details five key scientific breakthroughs that will enable the future of food and agriculture to thrive in the United States, as well as recommending a strategy for how to implement these breakthrough innovations.

"Business as usual approaches to managing agriculture and food systems are unable to keep the U.S. competitive in the global food and agriculture industry, or allow us to meet future demands," said Lowry. "Our committee proposes areas for strategic research investments to achieve science breakthroughs needed to make our food and agricultural systems more resilient and sustainable by 2030. It will stimulate investment for the convergence of ideas across scientific disciplines needed to develop efficient, holistic, systems-based management approaches to food and agriculture."

The breakthroughs the committee identified include taking a systems approach to manage the different elements of food and agriculture systems; using sensors to monitor across food and agricultural disciplines; applying data science and advanced analytics to the food and agriculture domains; implementing routine gene editing; and understanding the mircrobiome for increased efficiency and resilience. The committee then suggests how scientists, engineers, and researchers can use these breakthroughs to advance both food and agriculture.

As a member of this committee, Lowry provided expertise on nanotechnology-enabled approaches to make food and agriculture systems more efficient. He also provided expertise on water treatment and water management alternatives, and systems-based approaches for agriculture management.

Even though the agriculture and food industries may be facing challenges, it is clear we have the technological and scientific capabilities that, when fully integrated and applied, will provide a promising future.

"The global demands for food are as much as doubling by 2050," said Lowry. "Sustainably meeting this demand (and those for energy and fiber) without unacceptable environmental consequences will only be possible through the new investments in science and engineering called for in this report. Without them, the U.S. will lag behind the world in agriculture productivity and its corresponding food security and economic benefits." 

Provided by Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering