Dec 9, 2019
At the very heart of sustainable food production is the health of soil. Not only does soil health and microbial community impact the production of food for humans and animals, soil can be a major player in the sequestration of carbon – a main variable to climate change. Through focused research goals in finding ways to improved and protect the environment while also boosting agricultural productivity, Dr. Chuck Rice shares his thoughts on many facets of the complex agriculture system, new technologies, water policies and soil health.
Where Soil Health Meets Global Food System Challenges - A Discussion with Dr. Charles Rice
There's lots of challenges. There's, you know, the increasing population. How do we deal with increasing production but also food waste? But how can we do that increased production without harming having impact on our natural resources?
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.
I’m Scott Tanona. I'm a Philosopher of Science.
And I'm Jon Faubion. I'm a Food Scientist.
Hello everyone and welcome back. At the very heart of sustainable food production is the health of soil. Not only does soil health and microbial community impact the production of food for humans and animals, soil can be a major player in the sequestration of carbon, a main variable to climate change. Our guest today is Dr. Chuck Rice University Distinguished Professor and recipient of the Marielle venir professorship in the Department of Agronomy at K State. Chuck's research goals are to find ways to improve and protect the environment, while also boosting agricultural productivity. In today's discussion, Chuck shares his thoughts on the many facets of the complex agriculture system, new technologies, water policy and yes, soil health. Dr. Rice, welcome to the podcast.
I've heard recently that you've received a $10 million USDA grant. Very exciting and we will talk more about that as we get into it. But first, I'd like to hear a little background on who you are and how you got to where you are today.
Okay. Well, I actually grew up in Illinois a small town outside of Chicago at that time, many years ago. It was a rural community. They called it the super boonies, Yorkville, but now it's part of the suburbs of Chicago, but I didn't really grow up on a farm. But I was active in 4H. My parents, I was a first generation college student, my parents, my mom worked in a cafeteria, my dad worked in a factory, but they were really supportive of science education. You know, they bought chemistry kits, we had a microscope, they we hatched an egg, cut a window and an egg and watch the check grow. So I had a lot of that kind of science background in that. And I had really some key teachers third grade, that third fifth and, and then freshmen in high school that were really instrumental get me involved in science, I guess I was attuned to science, but things like we made butter and then but what really got me started into science and biology related was my freshman, high school biology teacher. We he took a select group at the end of the year to a the sand dunes in Michigan. And we studied this we spent camping, but spent the time from looking at the development of plant communities from the lake beach dunes all the way into the climax forest which is a beach maple forest and Western Michigan. So that kind of what got me started and then to certain things, moments in time in college, got involved with water and soils in geography. I was a geography major. I switched in midterm but to the geography and really got involved in soils particularly did an internship at Argonne National Lab on surface mine reclamation at that time. And then my advisor for college. I was thinking about doing a master's in land use planning at Northern Illinois. And he said well, we've done as about as much as we can do for you. You ought to go somewhere else. I got married and my took my wife and myself and went down got a assistantship at Kentucky do surface mine reclamation for my masters and then stayed on for my PhD in soil microbiology nitrogen side tackling in knotel systems, so that was my real first, real indoctrination into agriculture.
You stated in some of the materials that I read online that soil microbiology impacts everything beyond the local level, it gets to be an international. How can you explain where that how that impacts and fits into the bigger picture and how that might, the bigger picture may bring information back to the local.
Right, right? Well, so soil microbiology is a relatively new field, particularly with a new techniques. But people don't really understand the value of soils, and particularly the microbes and soils. I often tell people at for the human aspect, that we only understand about one person awakened only cultivate 1% of the microbes in soil. So we know genetically, there's the other 99%, but we really don't know their ecology, but yet that 1% We get 90 plus percent of our antibiotics. For human health. We did an analysis about 50% of our anti cancer drugs, anti immunosuppressant, or even number suppressant drugs come from soils, which a lot of our microbial origin. So the whole world's wide open for trying to discover what the other 99% are doing, both for human health, but also for this planet. And so while I'm not necessarily doing the work on human health, I do quite a bit of work on what those microbes are doing in soil, for our culture, but also the effect the planet. And so the, the hot topic, no pun intended, but is the carbon cycle. So carbon, stored in soils, is about two to three times more than what's in vegetation on this planet. And a lot of that carbon, is processed by the microbes as we're getting into fall here, tree leaves, drop, corn, soybean residue, all that plant material is processed by the microbes in a portion of that is then sequestered or stored in soils. So now we have the tools to understanding the global carbon cycle and those microbes, how they're involved really affect our planet because of global rise in co2 and the implications that has on climate change. But, you know, now we have the tools to understand those microbes and really, to create healthier soils, and store more carbon become more efficient with nutrients.
So I take it, you're no longer are you the scientific community, are no longer at quite the loss, you were to be able to cultivate these. Are you is that part of the problem that you
Yeah, that's still the case today. That we know with the molecular techniques now, genomic analysis that we can know, we know, DNA strands, the DNA, but we really still can't cultivate a lot of those organisms. And we really need to have those tools so that we can understand the ecology, how do they fit in the soil environment, how they interact with each other. So we know the genetic potential a little bit what their potential activities, but trying to figure out how they live in the soil, how they live and plant roots, the potential there for increasing efficiency, water resilience in crops, is really key. It's really a kind of the next, next frontier.
So how do you study some of this? If you don't, if you can't bring it into a lab and cultivated that’s part of what you're talking about? Right? It's sort of that being able to sort of in the lab, then see what's going on? Are you at? Are you at a loss? If you can't do that, are there things that you can do to know, actually in the field, right?
Yeah, so there's, I don't. So there's people that do the genomic analysis, and I guess I'm looking at the products of that microbe activity. So I look at processes, and not the individual organisms, per se, but those groups of organisms and how they process nitrogen, or how they process carbon, so I'm looking at the tivity, and what environmental factors affect that activity, but I don't know necessarily who they are. But I want to know what they're doing.
Famous story when people were studying slime mold, dictyostelium. They knew that they aggregate it and they knew that there's something you control that aggregation, but they couldn't figure out what it was and all they could see was the spot on chromatography paper, and so they called it magic spot. For about five years until we finally got to characterized,
Okay, that's interesting. Yeah, I didn't know that. But yeah, they I mean, it's, it's something like that, you know. It'd be nice to grow, cultivate those organs. So we could look at their specific mechanisms and their ecology. But at this point in time, we know enough that we can, some of the general enzymes that make those products are really useful, and then what controls them. So I'm looking at things like moisture, and how human management of soils affects those processes for the detriment or for the benefit.
Could you say some of the things that you see there? Like, what, what are the kinds of interesting effects that that you're that you're studying? And that you're looking at? Right, in terms of the effects of, you know, water or human activity? And what are the outcomes? Are you looking at mostly carbon sequestration? Or what other kinds of things that are was interesting.
Yeah, So I guess, well, the current topic that's been working on soil health, but you know, that's very generic and how to improve soil health, and particularly, the microbial aspects of that we know the chemistry and the physics measurements, but microbial techniques, which you know, are just time out are fairly new. And so how do those measurements can be used to indicate direction of soil health, but the reason for the interest in soil health is for multiple effects. One is carbon sequestration. You mentioned, you mentioned, like I said, there's three, two to three times more carbon in soils, and then there is in the atmosphere, or in vegetation. So understanding how that carbon is retained in that soil. How can we put more carbon to the benefit of the environment to the atmosphere. So things that we're working on is we know that certain soil management practices like less tillage is beneficial for more fungi in fungi are more efficient with a carbon so more of their carbon a process or return is retained in the soil over bacteria. Also, we know that the fungal hyphae that permeate through the soil just like if you look on your bread moldy, bread, you know, those hyphal strands, those hyphae, grab onto the soil particles in physically bind them together. And what happens is that organic carbon is trapped inside those aggregates. And that protects them. And that's one of the mechanism for carbon sequestration. So I use, I work on both agricultural systems and grassland ecosystems, the Konza prairie here. And so I try to understand the principles of the prairie ecosystems, because they're water resilient, they're nutrient deficient, and look at those principles and try to figure out how those principles could be applied to access them, make them more resilient, more efficient.
The idea of the microbiome, I think, is just absolutely fascinating. And the work you're doing, obviously, as on the agricultural side of it, and looking at the human side of microbiome, and how those things are all going to fit together, I think in the future is going to be open up new areas that we never even considered.
Now, we're really excited. It's a fascinating time to be microbiology, so I saw microbiologists, and there's going to be lots of job opportunities, too.
So this is an area that is being viewed this specific area with more favor as far as funding potential.
Sure. Yeah. Well, I think so. You just mentioned the $10 million grant. Part of that was a component of that was soil health, and how do you improve soil health as well as being more nitrogen deficient? The goal of the program is to be 50% more nitrogen efficient in agricultural systems, which is a really daunting task. But it's aspirational. But really, I'm biased, but I think microbes are at least part of the key for that we can talk a little bit more about that. But the National Academy of Sciences came out a report last year, talked about breakthroughs research in agriculture and food systems. And the plant and soil microbiome was one of the one of the themes out of the five.
Well that’s certainly hopeful. Yes, yeah. You'd hate to find yourself in a situation with doing unsustainable research or you got a grant.
Yes. Yeah. Yeah, no and USDA, NSF Do we all have are currently putting more money into kind of the microbiome area?
A lot of the work that you're doing in the area of climate change. I mean, obviously, that overlaps into this quite a bit. How do you respond to people that really don't believe that climate change is caused by things that we're doing today?
That's a good question. And it's changed over time. 20 years ago, it was a lot more controversial than it is now. But you still get the deniers or the skeptics. What I try to do, particularly when I, if I'm given a presentation, and there's usually skeptics in the room, is that I just try to show the data. And, and now, it's easier to show some of the implications of that. So actually, this morning's class, I show the rise in CO2 in the last 800,000 years. And if you put that that concentration graph, you know, shows that it varied between 180-280 parts per million, up until the beginning of the last century, but then there's been a huge increase, not only have we surpassed the 280, you know, when I came here, okay, stay in the late 1980s. It were we're doing experiments at looking at elevated CO2 on effect on plants. And that was 350 parts per million. So we're above that to RNA. And today, we're above 410 parts per million. And so just, if you put on a graph on a timescale, it's to sit here bounce around between 180-280. And then it shoots up dramatically. And so you can't deny that co2. And so we're beyond what our human existence pretty much in that 100 or 800, almost a billion years. And then we talk about sources, and about 80% of that increase is from fossil fuels. And we know that because of the carbon signature of that. So we know it's traced back to fossil fuels and the other 20% is from human activity, deforestation primarily. So that's two pieces, I show that data and then I show well, what's what we talked about CO2 and as a gas, heat trapping, and potential and then try to show the temperature records. And again, I'd say it's a little bit easier now. Because the last 20 years, it's continued the temperature records for the planet, aim for the country, US has continued to rise, and we set new records almost every year, but certainly decade by decade. And now we're seeing the other things that's happening. And that's the change in extreme events, not only temperature, but also rainfall. And, you know, the last few years, it's made it easier to talk about it because here 2012, we had a major major, a three year drought that affected Kansas, and the central part of us. And then last year, September or Labor Day, last year at rain, what a 10 inches in about four hours, and flooding. And then this spring, it's just been a disaster across the central part of the country with major major floods and huge amounts of rainfall. This year, just in Manhattan, it's been you know, it seems like oh, we get a four inch rain storm event each night, you know, and every couple of weeks, so and now we can track those and so we can show not even forgetting or not even talking about the future. What's happened already is more extreme events, both on temperature and water. And then that's affected the agriculture sector which tends to be one sector that's more conservative, not politically but in the idea of climate change. So they're being affected with their normal operations, and then we can talk about the future implications. But the point here is that, you know, these things are already observable now. And then what's potential in the future.
Being able to look that at a longer time scale much must be a really big help because I know farmers will tend to to answer the well. This is Kansas we get really good one you're really bad, the other and that's just what it is.
And they're right you know, the weather is always changing. And they've had to deal with it. But the problem is, or the challenge is that those changes are occurring much in a greater extreme and much more rapidly. So you could breed a crop. And you know, it takes 15-20 years to produce a new variety, while 15 to 20 years, we're in a new paradigm. And so, we it's a challenge for our culture, and it needs that investment in our culture, for the research to keep up with those increasingly rapid changes.
Do you have the opportunity to take this information out to an interdisciplinary group? Um, you're, obviously you're teaching within your program, and but you've got a lot of information. I think that that is valid.
Yeah, I've been fortunate, I guess, to have opportunities to talk to a variety of people, groups, from local citizens, I talked to, you know, Kansas producers, but I gave a talk. Last fall, I guess, was earlier this year, sorry, in Wichita, to one of the TV stations down there, and they had a panel and talked about climate change. And that was broadcasted on the NPR or the TV equivalent of NPR. But then I, you know, I, I try to present the facts. And then I guess one of the things is trying to relate it to local level, it's one of the things I've learned is, figure out your audience and then present the material at that level. So I've saw I have talked to producers by talk to I've given testimony at the Kansas legislature or briefings in Congress, in the US Congress, but I've even talk to the legislators in New Zealand, Brazil, and some other places. So it's given me a variety of opportunities to learn how to transfer that information to different groups.
How much of the research that you do is interdisciplinary to I mean, so you got this work with the IPCC, which is very interdisciplinary, right? And is that a kind of thing where you just contributed sort of talk about how that happened? Right?
Yeah, well, he made the process of how I got selected via an IPC or and then what he did for it. So we had a, I guess, a little bit of background, we had a major grant, from Congress to work on climate change, and air culture mitigation. In Kansas State was lead and I was the project director for that was 10 universities, or 10 institutions, and it was about $15 million. But that set us up, this is early 2000. So it set us up as the group of leading experts on agriculture. And so there was other countries that wanted to basically mimic our consortium. So Australia, in particular. And so I got engaged with Australian scientists, and some of our colleagues, all scientists, that made it easier, but and so in during the that time period, the US was doing bilateral negotiations on research on climate change. They weren't in the the global UN effort. And so Australia came to us and said, you know, we want to work with this group from K State, this consortium led by K State. Well, one thing led to another and State Department was doing these bilateral negotiations, and they asked me to participate in those negotiations. So I go and set coordinate plans for research to coordinate between the US, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and Canada were the four countries. But then the State Department asked me to, or asked if I'd be willing to be nominated for the IPCC. The process is that each country nominates a person, then that’s sent to the UN center, and then they look for expertise, diversity, other criteria, and then I did get selected for two rounds to report that 2007 and the 2014 report. It's a fascinating process, because you're right it is the ensnared interdisciplinary so Even in agriculture, if you think about it, there's soil scientists. But there's animal scientists, there's agriculture, agriculture economics, there's sociology. You know, modelers, engineers, so it's a very diverse even when the agriculture sector and then you have to each chapter as it's written, so I was one of the lead authors for the Agriculture chapter, but then you have to coordinate, and then talk to how your piece fits in, like, for example, biofuels, well, how does that fit into the transportation sector? So then you have to bring in a new whole cadre that don't know anything about soils, or, or have, you know, perceptions on agriculture that are not necessarily true. And so it's just, yeah, it's fascinating. And, you know, you could, I could stay in my lab and do soil microbiology work, but to be transformative, and what impacts the world you need real science is really complex. Now, you really have to be transdisciplinary. In order to bring these complex systems in, I would argue Agriculture is a complex system, because involves sociology involves, you know, the physical environment, the soils and the water, and that, but then it's economics. And so one of my jokes is that USDA, in these large grants required that you have a sociologist, and so it's not just putting them on the grant, but it's embedding them in the project. And so my joke was, I'm not very social person. And but I've learned to work with sociologists, and but it's been really valuable and educational to understand why consumers or why farmers don't accept certain practices or understanding. And so it makes my work, hopefully more impactful.
In that sense, has that kind of thing changed any of what you actually do? Like in your work? Has it changed the direction of some of the projects or any of the actual research methods?
Yeah, I guess I would, in one sense, No, I'm still doing my detailed field and lab experiments. But I now work with teams of people. And so I'm looking at how we can design agricultural systems that improve soil health, or affect the microbiology, and then how those practices would be accepted by producers. And what's the economics? When I give, we were talking earlier, giving talks to various groups, you know, I give briefings to Congress or a lot of times talks to producers, you know, okay, fine, you know, the soil microbiology is great, or soils are great. But you know, what does it mean, to my bottom line, my profit, you know, we can be sustainable all we want, but if you're not, for the for soils, or, but if you're not providing a profit, that farm is not going to be sustainable. And so it has, I guess it has affected how I think about this, the whole system. And that's one of the advantages, being on the National Academy Board, is that it's pulling in from all these different disciplines and trying to develop what's the future of agriculture.
Can you talk a little bit more about the National Academy board and this clearly a very prestigious position? And it's, it's a something that your peers brought you into that and put you in that spot? So how does it work?
Yeah, so the National Academies, now it's all merged sciences, engineering, and medicine used to be three separate, but they have the honorific which are the fellows. But then they have operational unit. It's still kind of called the natural National Research console, but it kind of is really under the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. So under that, the research console, they have different divisions in different boards. So while back, I guess, about nine years ago, I got asked to be a board member of the board on agriculture and natural resources. And then three years ago, I ended up being appointed as chair of that board, and I just found out yesterday I got reappointed for another three, three years. It's a you know, it's well, one is prestigious. But the idea, at least my goal on the board, particularly as board chair is we do different studies on issues related to the US, related to Agriculture and Natural Resources. And part of our job is to be also looking at what's the future of Agriculture and trying to help lead innovation in agriculture natural resource, that the challenge that our board is that we have Agriculture in natural resources. So there's agriculture, but then there's also soil water, forestry, and so they can be synergistic. But they can also be in conflict with each other, you know, if Agriculture is imposing impacts on water or, or forestry. So it makes it challenging, but I think it also makes it fascinating, because it is one whole ecosystem, and how can we have, you know, sustain food production? And sustain the environment?
Is the anticipation that you on the board will be advocates? Or, you know, is it a bully pulpit, as well?
Well, yeah, we produce policy, relevant information. And, but so sometimes, so the National Academy was set up by Abraham Lincoln, the same year as same time period as the land grant system universities. And so it was designed to be provide scientific advice for Congress. And so we are, we can be commissioned by Congress to do a study on a certain topic, and hopefully provide money for that, or they direct the agencies to provide money for that. Because the studies aren't necessarily cheap, because you're bringing in expertise and depends on the activity, it can be a three months, or it could be a three year effort. So there's a lot of staff time, my time has volunteered a lot of other people, all the studies, the experts are all volunteer time except for their travel. So then, Congress, but more recently, we'll get group states or even NGOs will come to the boards and say, You really need to have a study on this topic. We're doing run right now on soaring of Tennessee horses, which is looking at the ethics and how to detect soaring as the Gatewatch of horses. And so there's training but then they can also put devices in hooves that cause pain, and create that exaggerated gait. So what we're being asked to do is how can you detect some of that? So, you know, here on my own, and I'm dealing with, you know, Tennessee, walking horses, and so on, or we're going at this, but at a rad advocacy? Yeah. So. So then we will, then this recommendation will be you know, how do you detect that and of course, that could lead to legislation. In that sense. Citrus greening is a major issue for the orange industry. And so we were asked to evaluate their research program. And, there's multitude of sources, as agriculture as typically they got consumer groups, industry groups, the federal government supporting sectors research, and so it was very disoriented. And how do you bring those groups gather and groups together and then figure out what are the top priorities to have a more effective program? It doesn't necessarily lead to well, parts of it could lead to legislation, but would we directed and say, Okay, you need to coordinate better and these are the topics so yeah, I'm trying to think food safety, of course, are right now we're, we're looking at some of the innovations robotics in ag, you know, how do we spur that innovation? So it would the studies, workshops, could come out and say, Okay, these are the priorities and that would help direct industry and as well as the federal government on direction.
So a lot of people in the public maybe, maybe elsewhere, right start to think about sciences, a little more politicized now, right. And sort of part of that is like climate science, right? And sort of, you know, the way you talked about it was just, you know, here, here are the facts, right. But of course, a lot of people view this as it, you know, as John was just saying, sort of, you're already like advocating a bully puppeting. Or you gotta, you got an agenda, right. And, and then a lot of the things that you're just talking about, you know, there is at least sort of, oh, maybe some trade offs, or some areas where you kind of you might have some questions about, alright, so how much of what we're doing is really, you know, value driven or policy driven, or we have, we have a point, or there's something we're trying to accomplish, and how much of what we're doing is really just like, oh, you know, here's the facts, folks. Right, as we see them, could you? I mean, how do you think about, you know, I guess, like all of that, you know, either as it comes up on the National Academies and other people on the board thinking about those issues? And, you know, are they are they going for further being, like, truly objective? Or can you be objective? You know, and then, you know, all the way back to your science and IPC, I mean, it's a big huge question, but just like, in general, I think about these things.
Well, yeah. Um, so, yeah, a couple examples. IPC was probably a good one. You know, the critics say, well, the IPC is just pushing their own agenda. But I will tell you, you know, if you've had in science, right, peer reviewed manuscripts, and then you get outside people look at your work. And, and, you know, you know, you get, you don't get all these great comments here. You got pages of that. And, you know, usually there's two or three reviewers. For the agriculture just agriculture chapter alone, we had, I'm forgetting the number exactly, but over 2000 individual comments, and we had to respond each single comment. Now, we could say, we accept that we'll make changes or no is wrong, but and then we had a reviewer watching us to make sure we just didn't ignore those comments. And that's all. So you got to have the comments that you make, or the recommendations you make aren't just off the cuff. They have to be based on scientific background, and you got, and so you have, you know, hundreds of people watching you, and then the reviewers are watching the other people watching, make sure we're responding to those. So there's a lot of oversight, you can't just, you know, forget the fact or the science, you know, yeah. And so IPC, we would say, you know, this is I forgot what the terms were, but this is highly likely, you know, and some uncertainty level, you know, there's a 50% chance that we're wrong or whatever. But, you know, it's fair, the scientists are fairly conservative, you know, so even if you say, Well, it's a 90% chance that it might be right. It's probably a lot higher than that. But scientists, at least in particularly an agriculture, but we tend to be more conservative and are judged.
Like yeah, right, so not not going too far.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. Status, establishing likelihood. Yeah.
But there are cases, you know, we're in negotiation or discussion for the National Academy to look at water in this country. groundwater, and it, it's probably as sensitive a topic as climate change, or maybe even more so. Because our country doesn't have a water policy. It's as a whole. I mean, we have Kansas policy, we have Texas, you know, and water is very dear to not only the state, but to an individual and it doesn't respect state boundaries. It does. Yes, that's right. And so Texas is very, you know, you can pump it, if you any water below your land, of course, it goes beyond that. But you can just pump until it runs dry Kansas, actually, as a state has a more advanced water policy, though, than most other states in this country, which is interesting.
California has this heritage system.
Yeah. So, we've talked about how do you it's a major issue, affecting our culture, but also going to affect competition with industry and cities. And that's already happening out west on surface waters. And so how do we do we need to look at what's the science behind what how do you mind What the recharge rate is, and then look at opportunities for efficiencies. But it's probably going to have to come into some discussion on water policy, which could be challenging, you know, because the state water rights issues, but, but we'll have to, if we're based on science, and say, these are policy options, not prescriptive, but say, you know, if you do this, this could affect, you know, save water you do this other policy or, or programs, it could undermine and increase water use, or Yeah, so. But you'll have, again, you'll have to be the economists and, and, and sociologists to help design or provide those policy options. We're not saying it's this policy, but these are the implications of those different policies to help.
Yeah, yeah, I think that's one of the clearest explanations of why we need sociologists. Truly, honestly, series. Spectacular.
Yeah, but also why you need the science to write together the pieces, right, sort of it's, you know, the thinking about designing serious policy without having some science behind it telling us what the implications are going to be of doing this thing, or that thing is just sort of mind boggling.
Yeah. But and that's why, like, you know, I enjoy working these interdisciplinary groups is, is having that interaction and and other viewpoint to think about, oh, yes, there's just, there's the economic or sociology piece, you know, I can design agriculture practices, but nobody takes them up. I haven't done the world any good.
This one's kind of a wide open question. But basically, what are your thoughts on the future of agriculture? When you're talking? I mean, we, you've talked a lot about the science and the under the climate change, and those kinds of things. But there are a lot of challenges coming forward.
There's a lot of serious challenges. But agriculture, in this country, and around the world is in everybody's conversation. I think, now, it's a wonderful time to be in our culture. But it's also we got to get it right, because there's a lot of interest in agriculture right now. And so we need to take hold of that opportunity. There's lots of challenges. There's, you know, the increasing population, how do we deal with increasing production, but also food waste? But how can we do that increased production without harming having impact on our natural resources, forests, grasslands, soil water. And so I really think I was at a roundtable, week ago, of innovations are can't really what you just talked about future of agriculture innovations. And so from a technical standpoint, we need to be innovative agriculture is one of the least technology advanced sectors, I think it's like seven out of eight or something. And so we need to think, look at those other sectors, but robotics data, data acquisition and data analytics are going to be critical. Looking at efficiencies, this new grant that we have, we're supposed to increase water use efficiency by a rain fed agriculture, by 50% and nitrogen by 50%. As well as the same time increase production by 2% annually. So that's kind of Yeah. So but you know, I think if we can look at, there's a lot of startups let me back up. There's a lot of startups, now interested in agriculture all the millennials from Google and all that they're pumping millions and billions of dollars into agriculture startups. So I've been talking to companies. They're looking at robotics, and so instead of spraying a whole field for herbicides or chemicals, they got sensors on and spot spraying. Okay, this is wheat, and this is a corn plant or cotton plant. Okay, I want to spray this one, but not this one. And so one, you've reduced your chemical use. So that's profit for the farmer, but you also have less impact on the environment. So things like that are really key. We talked earlier about the microbiome. There's a lot of investment in looking At taking advantage of the soil microbiome to increase productivity and increase efficiency, so there's a company called pivot bile that is, has taking a microbe and adding it to corn plants, corn roots. So it's not a legume or sore, it's not fixing nitrogen inside the root, it's actually living around that root. And it's fixing nitrogen, and then shares that nitrogen to the corn plant. So it's in its early stages. But if it works, and I like the concept, then what that means is, then we wouldn't have to apply as much commercial or synthetic fertilizer. And that makes it more efficient. Because if it's fixing nitrogen as the plant is growing, then it's sharing that nitrogen and not giving it and then it's not available for loss, it's out of the system.
What's the advantage of the microbe? I can see the advantage to the corn plant.
They're living in the root and they're getting the carbon. Okay, so root exudates, from the, from the plant. And so they, so they're just, they're after carbon, they're after energy. And so if you added a microbe before and microbe to the general soil, it couldn't compete. Because there are microbes out there that have been that are used to low nutrient low carbon status, we think saw as a rich, but relative laboratory media, they're very poor. And so the general biology additives to soil generally don't work. But you now you have this root rhizosphere. That's a special niche. So it's almost like a laboratory culture. And so you can add that microbe and it's getting the carbon, a continuous supply of carbon is growing, and then it's fixing nitrogen. And they've manipulated the microbe. So it fixes excess nitrogen, and then that nitrogen goes then to feed the corn plant.
Typical post harvest biochemist asking you to pre harvest Yeah, right. Right. Question out of ignorance. I think.
So. Thanks. So how much of this you study grasslands to? Right? So how many of the kinds of things like that that you're talking about, are mimicking processes that are, you know, that you see in in grasslands? And how much does it sort of, like, brand new innovative, like, we're gonna do something different?
Yeah. So well, I guess the basic ecology if you look at, like the tall grass prairie, it's never tilled. Okay, so we don't have to do tillage. And that's what we're trying to promote. In agriculture is no till systems, but it has diversity there. And we can come back to that because it has different plant communities. But we don't add nitrogen, or nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, other nutrients to the system, other than what comes through the rainfall. So their nitrogen economy of that system is either recycle it, or do some nitrogen fixation. Well, it turns out, most of the prairie nitrogen is recycled. It's very, very nitrogen efficient. But it's also in my model climate resilient, you know, the droughts it slows down, it has deep rooting systems, it has diversity in there. So it's climate resilient, it's water efficient, it's nutrient efficient. And it's a fairly stable ecosystem, you know, you don't have past outbreaks and wipe through. Well, so how does that translate to agriculture? So there's just those basic principles. Well, can we design that we don't have to tillage, so we got no till? We're still planning monoculture and single crop, which you know, some people think, well, we can do polyculture, that's going to be hard to do. But can we increase the diversity, not maybe in space in one point in time, but can we increase that diversity over time, so the value is then you plant a corn crop and then you have cover crops, or you do rotations that are plant corn every year you plant corn, soybean, wheat, or other crops, and do cover crops so you have continuous cover, so it's more like the prairie. You can actually choose your cover crops for what you want to do for the soil. So say if I got compaction, I want to plant a tuberose crop like tillage radish, or turnips, they'll create bio pores in the soil. You don't have to tell it or I want nitrogen. Well, I plant a legume in that system. To fix nitrogen for the succeeding crop. So there's, we need to have design or cover crops, or our mixes to make the agriculture system more efficient and resilient. So and then, part of the innovation is that a lot of people are going out and bioprospecting those microbes in those root systems to figure out okay, can we take those microbes and then put them into an ag system? Cool.
Can you say something about why polyculture? Is, is a challenge? Is it sociological? Is it economic? Or is it sort of a matter of the, you know, I don't know. Other aspects of the biological processes?
Yeah. Well, if you think about, like the prairie, you got, you know, you know, 100 different kinds of plants, but say, even a polyculture, you know, slanted to West Jackson was really doing the polyculture work. They backed off a little bit. Now we're looking at perennial sorghums, and wheats and that, but the polyculture, conceptually is nice, because you have a diverse mix out there. You know, pest outbreaks are going to be less but the problem is, how do you harvest that. Now, if you're going to graze it, that's fine, you put animals out there and graze. But if I want, I got I want harvest the grain from a wheat, and a corn, and, you know, some legume, I got three different species out there, they're gonna mature at different times. And then I got to figure out how to separate the grain. And if they mature at different times, you know, one's ready to harvest the other one isn't. But if I wait to the one that's later, that we're for the first one's probably going to shatter. And so it's someone's technological. But then I guess it's somewhat sociological in the sense of how do you manage three or four crops growing at the same time? And so you know, the systems we were talking about earlier with cover crops and, and rotations. It takes a lot more knowledge and skill. Well, now, if you got three or four crops growing at the same time, the management skills have to increase dramatically.
Are there similar issues with the managing the microbiology of the soils. Do you think in terms of the complications? And how much additional, you know, basically, management expertise it takes?
That’s a good question, I haven’t thought of it that way. I guess from an occulant side, adding these organisms like the corn, we're used to adding treatments on to corn seed or soybean seeds for for, generally for pest control, but, and legumes, we coat legume seeds for rhizobia, that fix nitrogen that's, we got 57 years of experience in that area. So that's not necessarily a new technology, and it's just, you inoculate it then you plant it. And then you just hopefully provide the environment. So you're not actively managing those microbes that's providing a good environment, and then adding the inoculant. to that. I suppose there be certain things you got to worry about, if you're doing seed treatment, adding a fungicide that might affect that added microbe or added bacteria. If you're adding chemical fertilizer, you're gonna make sure it doesn't. It isn't caustic to those microbes. So there's a little bit of that, but we're probably I guess I'm once you know, it's those are practices that most farmers are used to doing dealing with.
When you're talking about diversity, the scale you're talking about, you're talking about maybe two different three different plants going in corn and wheat or whatever it might be. What are your thoughts on kind of the small farming the smaller farming type practices that I know with the reduction in population in western Kansas, the state looks at ways of trying to increase population and bring in other other kinds of growing patterns. What are your thoughts on the small versus the very large agricultural practices?
Yeah, I guess from a technology standpoint, these innovators I don't think I think they're scale neutral. At least I hope they are. There may be out modifications, but in my global travels, I was so, so one one way, or one thing that we do like to manage nitrogen is look at sensors that detect the greenness of plants. And if it's less green, that means it's generally nitrogen deficient. So then you can go in and apply more nitrogen. Well, you know, so we got drones and other on tractor sensors. But I was at a one acre rice paddy in Vietnam. And they're using their smartphone and sensing the greenness for color from the smartphone and then one of the international research centers, Irie had developed an application well then this is how much nitrogen need to put on your rice. So here's, you know, one acre, rice, Paddy farmer, Vietnam, and a cell phone or smartphone technology. And so in that case, is technology neutral is packaging it differently, but the information still is applicable. You know, I've heard people say, Well, no till has to be large scale, big farms. But Brazil is you can plant knotel by hand, or they got no till planters or horse drawn or oxen drawn. So it doesn't have to be now. And there are some farmers, least in Brazil, I've seen are doing organic knotel. Not using herbicides. It's possible. But it's a lot harder. We talked about the sociological aspects, the management skills required for organic no till is much, much higher skill level and management skills.
So when you get into some of the smaller farming practices, I didn't take my question to the level that needed to be and you're looking at small farmers putting in a variety of different vegetables, fruits, grains, whatever it might be. Is there more of a positive impact on the microbiological soil?
Yeah, yeah. So yeah, because if you get more plant root systems, we're worried about the above ground, but more root variety, as a good thing for the microbes, because they're feeding off of different sources of types of food from that roots. So, you know, I talked about earlier, well, increasing diversity. And that was probably more big farms is adding cover crops and rotations in that sense. But a small farmer can actually do it easier because he or she can plant well. I mean, it's very common practice to plant corn and beans in the inner row, you know, if they're hand harvesting, or that's easier to do than trying to run a machine through these rows and crushing your inner row. thing. So you could do things, like some of the things you could actually do easier on a small holding. So the principles still apply. And, and going back to soil health, particularly the continent of Africa, though, a lot of those countries, I was in Ghana, February, they really need soil health, because their soils are so devoid of organic matter. And if you could improve organic manner, improve aggregation. So when it does rain, infiltrates, and then it's held in the soil, then that makes those soils and those small holding farmers much more resilient and not subject to the variety of climate extremes, weather extremes. All comes back to the soil.
The fundamentals, yes. You talked a little bit I think earlier about the grant that you've got coming in, what are the outcomes that you're looking for from that program?
Well, so it's a five year program is based in Southern Great Plains, primarily Oklahoma, and Kansas. And the idea is to Well, I mentioned earlier but the idea is to develop systems that are that increase production, also increase total factor productivity. And that's what's I'm not that's an economist, again, working in the Transdisciplinary Areas, how to figure that one out. But simply it's looking at how much inputs you put in, and what's the output and so the efficiency or the, the cost per unit of bush or grain produced, and then we have to increase water and nitrogen efficiency by, like 50%. By, well, it's, I forgot the timeframe, but we have to provide the tools for them, we are going to do it in five years. And then also be climate resilient. And so if you think of Kansas, and Oklahoma, in the non irrigated areas, we are extremely vulnerable to these weather extremes. And we talked about that, you know, from super dry to almost flooded conditions. So we have a group at University of Maryland that's also in the project. And they have expertise on modeling. And particularly, they've looked at weather. When I say, weather probabilities. So I've seen this et Cie, in Colombia, where if, for example, in April, we can look at the winter weather, what's the probability that the summer is going to be a wet year or drier, cooler, wet? And so it's not a climate model, but it's a more of a statistical model and say, if we got a 30% chance it's going to be dry, or 30%. Chances wet? So can we take that information? And this will be the challenge, and I predict we will fail many times, but that's okay. You learn from failure. But can we say okay, there's a 30% chance it's going to be a wet year or 50% chance? Well, instead of planning your normal summer crop, should we look for something that can take advantage of the extra water? So instead of planning? Well, maybe instead of so you harvest your wheat, and now if it's gonna be a wet year, the chances are, we can go to double cropping with sorghum, or even if it's really wet corn, okay. Or if it's going to be a dry year, maybe we aren't going to double crop, but we want to keep that soil covered. Well, maybe we plant a summer forage, and then that forage can be used for hay. So there's still a little better income, but you're still keeping that solid cover and keeping the microbes fed and some economic production from that. So looking at tying in, improve soil health to be more climate resilient, and maybe some weather projections, and once I predictions, but projections, it'll be a challenge. And that's why I said, I think we I, I expect we will fail some, but I hope that we will have some successes or learn from those failures. Because I'm sure there'll be times when we say okay, it's going to be a wet year. It's not. Okay. So that's, but that's what science and innovation should do. We hope to get involved some of the technology. So can we put in, in ground sensors for soil water for nitrogen to make on the go decisions to? So there's, I'm excited, I think it's a huge opportunity, a great opportunity. And if we're truly innovated, innovative, can we really produce some transformational change? Not incremental, but translate transformational changes in agriculture.
Very exciting. Yeah. Sounds like a really exciting project. Well, the last, the last question that I had, in my mind to bring to you is just something on the Nobel prize that you were named in in 2007. Can you give us a little bit of background on what that was all about?
Yeah. That was interesting. I wasn't even aware that we were even up for it. So the first thing is it was for the IPCC, IPCC report that came out in 2007. And it was for the entire group. So it's not like I won the Nobel Peace Prize I did, but I shared it with several 100 others. Scientists are authors of that report. Like said, I wasn't even aware that we were up for it. I woke up that morning and had a text from one of the faculty members on campus that congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize. I thought it was a joke you know, and then for a while there, we weren't sure, because it was a shared and it has actually split with Al Gore, he got half of it. And then IPC got the second half. And so we weren't sure it was for, you know, for the name group or for us included. And so there was a lot of confusion that morning saying, Okay, are we individual recipients and but anyway, it turned out that we, it was a shared, but we are part of that sharing process. And in fact, there was a lottery for groups, you can send 20 people to the ceremonies in in Norway. And so, of course, all the, you know, administrators, you know, leaders got there, but I think there was out of that 20, I think there was six slots available. So there was a lottery and I was had the potential fortunate I didn't win the lottery. So but we got a plaque, and there's artwork associated with each Nobel Prize. And so we got a copy of that artwork on that. So it's very, so it's kind of kind of, it was cool.
Yeah, no, it's very cool. Very, very, very nice. No. Okay, are there any other questions? I know that we, we've want to be conscious of your time, and the other folks around the table. Do you have anything more you want to add? Any questions of us?
No, not again. Thank you. It's been good conversation.
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