Food is too important to the human race to be a research afterthought. — Dr. William Danforth
This Thanksgiving holiday, the SoAR Foundation reflects upon all that we are thankful for. Our thoughts are with all those who are suffering from COVID-19 and those who have lost family and friends in the U.S. and around the world. We are grateful that there is strong progress on vaccines. Though socializing outside our immediate households is ill-advised, we appreciate being able to communicate virtually to our loved ones. The SoAR team is also tremendously grateful to our founder, Dr. William Danforth, who passed away in September.
We appreciate the scientists and farmers who are dedicated to ensuring safe and nourishing meals at our tables. Below are some stories from Retaking the Field. Speaking of dinner, I am imagining the delicious taste of fresh cranberry sauce, corn, turkey, broccoli, and my Mom’s favorite pecan pie. Naturally, we give a special thanks to bees and pollinators.
Both cranberries and blueberries are botanically part of the Vaccinium species. Although production and consumption is growing worldwide, the growth of U.S. production has slowed in the past five years. Producers have not yet benefited from advanced breeding technologies used in other crops, which limits their ability to grow new varieties with improved fruit quality and market value.
To improve cranberries and blueberries based on producer and consumer interests, North Carolina State University leads a nationwide, transdisciplinary team that includes researchers from Washington State University, University of Florida, University of Georgia, and others. Funded by USDA and others, the team’s goal is to leverage genomic resources to develop new cultivars with enhanced quality and attributes (e.g. taste, appearance, disease resistance, nutritional benefits).
Scientists are collaborating to reveal the genetic factors and characteristics that influence fruit quality. The team is exploring genes, traits, and tools in order to develop new DNA tests that will help them speed up selection of varieties with better traits. They are also working to improve production efficiency, handling, processing, and profitability.
By discovering new approaches to improve yields, efficiency, and market value, the team is helping farmers and strengthening the future of our nation’s cranberry and blueberry industries.
U.S. farmers produce 41 percent of the world’s corn on 400,000 farms located primarily in the Midwest Corn Belt region. American production value of corn was over $50 billion in 2018. The U.S. exports between 10 and 20 percent of its corn crop. An increasingly variable climate and weather extremes, including flooding and droughts, threaten crop production and degrade soil.
To sustain one of the nation’s most important farm crops, USDA funded the “Sustainable Corn Project”, a regional collaboration and research partnership. Iowa State University led a multidisciplinary team, which included University of Illinois, Purdue University, and others. The project’s purpose was to determine how to best help Corn Belt farmers mitigate, adapt, and make their operations more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
The project focused on ways to equip farmers with the practices to build resiliency to weather variability, maintain crop yields, and reduce negative environmental impacts. Scientists and farmers worked together to create a suite of practices for corn-based systems that are drought resilient, reduce soil and nutrient losses under saturated soil conditions, and ensure crop and soil productivity. The team shared management strategies with farmers and trained students to become the next generation of scientists.
Muscle development in turkeys changes with short-term heat stress. Current food-processing techniques were not designed for the meat produced in these conditions. To find a solution, Gale Strasburg, PhD, Michigan State University and his colleagues exposed eggs to a brief, mild heat shock which enables the bird that emerges from the egg to better tolerate heat stress—resulting in higher quality meat.
Temperature stress right before processing turkey directly impacts the quality of turkey meat that consumers expect and enjoy. If the birds experience a significant stretch of heat just before slaughter, as much as 40 percent of the turkey meat comes out paler, dryer, and cracks more easily after processing. Likewise, hatchlings exposed to prolonged heat or cold during transportation from the hatchery to farms often yield inferior quality meat.
With USDA funding, the team examined the metabolic changes that thermal stress produces. Because the birds cannot adapt to sudden changes in temperature, the team experimented with exposing eggs to mild heat increases. When the benefits of this tactic have been quantified, the next step is to devise a process that implements the findings on an intensive scale.
Jennifer Randall, PhD, New Mexico State University and her team are working to develop genetic tools to breed healthier pecan trees that are more productive and resilient by utilizing the available natural genetic diversity in pecans for future breeding of better seeds. The goal of the research is to produce trees with specific traits, such as disease resistance and salt tolerance, that will allow for better production. With USDA NIFA funding, this coordinated effort includes researchers from institutions including NMSU, University of Georgia, Texas A&M, and others.
The research team is sequencing the genomes of four pecan genotypes and has determined what sequences go to which chromosome. This means they are one step closer to understanding which genes lead to optimal characteristics. Selection of pecan crop characteristics will improve by decreasing the time it takes to breed new trees and select desirable traits.
Dr. Randall and her team hope to ultimately develop new pecan varieties that will provide benefits to growers in different regions. Growers as they will be able to produce a more stable crop with fewer inputs and protect pecans into the future.
Eastern Broccoli Project began in 2010 with the ambitious goal of creating a brand-new, $100 million broccoli industry in the Eastern U.S. within 10 years. Currently, the industry is valued at around $90 million. With two remaining years of funding, scientists and their collaborators are on schedule to meet their goal and create a reliable, high-quality, year-round supply of Eastern-grown broccoli for East Coast markets.
Funded by USDA, Cornell University leads the team that includes researchers from North Carolina State University, University of Tennessee, University of Georgia, University of Florida, Virginia Tech and others. For example, the team identified and exploited chromosomal markers for a cross-breeding process that results in broccoli with a dark green color, which appears more “healthy to most people” and stands to boost sales. The hybrid broccoli is being worked on by project scientists, companies, and farmers to provide a steady supply of more uniform eastern variants to the commercial markets.
Several hybrids of broccoli have been commercialized recently, and more are nearing release by seed companies. Over the next two years, the project team will work with these companies and farmers to ensure a steady flow of seeds and broccoli through the pipeline.
Insect pollinators are essential to U.S. growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Since the mid-2000s, beekeepers have consistently suffered annual honey bee colony losses of 31-46%. Current management tools are costly and may not be sufficient to indefinitely sustain the honey bee colony numbers or strength needed for pollination. The consequences of inaction are decreased yields and quality of fruits and vegetables, and potentially higher produce prices. The causes of honey bee and pollinator declines in the U.S. are varied, complex, and involve many stressors.
Funded by USDA and others, Penn State University leads a multi-institutional research team including Purdue University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of California – Davis, and others. The team developed Beescape, a new online tool and community to support bees and to help beekeepers understand what resources and risks bees may encounter when they leave the hive.
Beescape enables researchers to partner with beekeepers and gardeners to gather information about the health of their bees. This partnership has generated data so that they can better calculate how these landscape-quality scores translate to bees’ health outcomes. The collaboration protects pollinators, our fruit and vegetable supply, and farmers’ profits.
The SoAR Foundation wishes you and your loved ones a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!