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Digital agriculture initiative to tackle food security challenges

The Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture pools the knowledge and resources of disciplines across the university to develop new ways to address food security in a growing world. Above, Kathryn Boor '80, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, delivers opening remarks at the Cornell Digital Ag Workshop, held Oct. 9 in the Statler Hotel. Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell Brand Communications

Experts predict that in 2050 the world population will be about 9.7 billion people. At the end of this century that number will exceed 11 billion.

The population boom – along with a changing climate, increasing wealth and changing consumer demand – will all conspire to exert tremendous pressure on global food systems.

“And will we be able to use less land, water, fertilizer, and pesticide in the face of climate change along with evolving pests and pathogens?” Mike Gore, Ph.D. ’09, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor, associate professor of molecular breeding and genetics for nutritional quality in the School of Integrative Plant Science, asked recently at Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, New York. “Our crops need to be more resilient.”

Radical, elegant and sustainable solutions from an array of disciplines – biology, engineering, computing and information science, and business, to name a few – will be necessary to meet the challenges of the coming decades.

Cornell is answering the call with a large-scale collaborative push: the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA), which was formally introduced at the Cornell Digital Ag Workshop, Oct. 9 in the Statler Hotel. The initiative – to be led by Susan McCouch, Ph.D. ’90, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics – will pool the knowledge and resources of disciplines across the university to develop new ways to address food security in a growing world.

Titled “Transforming Agriculture and Food Systems,” the conference began with remarks from Kathryn Boor ’80, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS); Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering; and McCouch, who also has joint appointments in plant biology, biological statistics and computational biology.

Eighteen months ago, faculty from CALS, Engineering, Computing and Information Science, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business began meeting to design an initiative encompassing research, education and extension.

The group first defined “digital agriculture:” the application of computational and information technologies – coupled with nanotechnology, biology, systems engineering and economics – to research, agriculture and food-production operations.

It will take a village to meet the food-system challenges of the coming years, and Boor said Cornell will be at the vanguard of this multipronged effort.

“From improving animal health, to forecasting weather, to managing water delivery to plants, to enhanced plant breeding strategies, our faculty, staff and students are collaborating in novel and unexpected ways to take on challenges we had perceived to be intractable,” she said.

Boor, a food scientist, said she’s been “energized” by discussions with business and research partners across the country, including roundtable talks in San Francisco, New York and Boston.

“It became clear that we are uniquely positioned to leverage our research strengths across information and data science, engineering, and food and agricultural systems,” Boor said.

Boor announced gifts totaling nearly $500,000 from individual donors to support CIDA – “a remarkable level of support at this early stage,” she said. She also announced five faculty positions in CALS, to be filled in fiscal year 2019, in digital ag-related fields.

Cornell is also working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Services to bring to the university a team of 12 researchers, over two years, who will be focused on plant and animal breeding and software engineering tools.

Collins reminded the conference participants of something the multidisciplinary group itself proved – that collaboration is a way of life at Cornell.

“I think Cornell’s No. 1 strength is its ability to collaborate across colleges, departments and, in fact, the whole campus and university,” he said. “This initiative requires that we all put our shoulder to the wheel, so I’m extraordinarily excited about it.”

He also highlighted the spirit of entrepreneurship that permeates Cornell Engineering, and how infrastructure built in Ithaca and at Cornell Tech has fostered translational work in an effort to get products to market.

“We are recognized as one of the powerhouses as far as that’s concerned,” he said. “I think that will be another important asset as we move this entire initiative forward.”

Then came brief statements from the university’s digital agriculture thought leaders – including McCouch; Hakim Weatherspoon, associate professor of computer science; Abe Stroock, professor and director of the Smith School of Biomolecular Engineering; and Steven Wolf, associate professor of natural resources – as well as Ranveer Chandra, Ph.D. ’05, principal researcher at Microsoft. He developed FarmBeats, an “internet of things” program for agriculture that will play a major role in Cornell’s digital ag initiative.

Researchers who are working on innovative solutions for feeding a growing world presented their work, and the afternoon session focused on four interdisciplinary digital ag working groups, which have been meeting for several months to define and refine their efforts: Institutional Analysis and Development of Innovation Systems for Digital Agriculture (led by Wolf); Rapid Phenotyping (led by Gore); Weather, Climate and Agriculture (led by Stroock); and the Software-defined Farm (led by Weatherspoon).

In her plenary remarks, McCouch illustrated current challenges in stark terms: “We have a food system that leaves about 150 million children under the age of 5 wasting, stunted or underweight … while an estimated 45 million children are currently suffering from obesity, and that trend is increasing even in the developing world.” The statistics highlight the need for food that is more plentiful, better distributed and more nutritious.

“What is the motivation for CIDA?” she asked. “Well, the motivation is clearly that we’re trying to design food systems that will promote global health, well-being, prosperity and environmental sustainability. Not a small challenge.”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.