OP-ED: Research infrastructure in dire need of modernization

Safe and affordable food is at risk without investments.

Douglas Buhler is the director of MSU AgBioResearch and MSU Assistant Vice President of Research & Innovation. MSU AgBioResearch is a group of nearly 350 researchers from eight MSU colleges with a network of 14 research centers across the state and a total annual budget of over $130 million.

BuhlerA longtime leader in agricultural and natural resources research, the U.S. must continue to invest in research and infrastructure to maintain the worldwide competitive edge it’s worked so diligently to establish.

America’s food and agricultural sectors face exhausting challenges. The coronavirus pandemic and climate variability highlight the need for a more resilient food system and have stressed our research infrastructure to keep pace.

Our land-grant mission at Michigan State University fosters excellence in research innovation while providing training opportunities and hands-on work experience for future global leaders. Ultimately this work equates to impressive economic advantages. For instance, U.S. spending on public food and agriculture research and development from 1910 to 2007, on average, returned $17 in benefits for every $1 invested.

These key investments support American jobs, develop climate-smart practices for farmers and land owners across the country and world, increase global food security, and help ensure that the agricultural science pipelines proportionately represent all of America.

However, the U.S. cannot continue its research prominence with research facilities that are aging and in dire need of modernization. Much of the agriculture research in the U.S., including that at MSU, is being conducted in facilities built more than a half-century ago. According to a recent report commissioned by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, 69% of buildings at U.S. colleges and schools of agriculture are at the end of their useful lifecycle.

Right now, we are presented with an opportunity to think critically about what tools and resources our agricultural and natural resources researchers and their students need in the coming decades. I believe it is time for Congress to make a bold research investment to reposition the U.S. as a continued world agricultural leader.

Declining U.S. investments in agricultural and food systems research threaten ongoing advancements. We are at a critical time and challenged by many issues, including climate change, invasive species, emerging plant and animal diseases and global trade. Impactful research is needed to keep the U.S. food system secure, maintain us as a preferred trading partner, and to help assure global food security.

We must also be well positioned to maintain our strength in cutting edge technology and science in such pivotal areas as genetics, genomics, bioinformatics, plant, soil and animal microbiomes, computational/machine learning and antimicrobial resistance. These modern research facilities will help increase farming efficiency, sustainability and profitability.

Michigan, in particular, faces climate issues of utmost concern due to the nature of our varied agriculture production (we’re the second most diverse ag production state in the U.S.). Many of our specialty crops, which have experienced significant losses in recent years, are particularly sensitive to atypical weather fluctuations.

To address these unique circumstances and challenges, MSU needs significant upgrades in some of its critical facilities. A few of our most pressing needs are:

  • Updated and expanded greenhouse complexes and other controlled growth facilities to simulate varied climate conditions for plant resilience and pest resistance research.
  • A new dairy research facility for increasing efficiency to reduce the environmental impacts while maintaining steady production.
  • A new pest management laboratory to keep pace with changing pest dynamics and invasive species in Michigan’s diverse agriculture and natural resource economies.

Clearly, the U.S. has some work to do to preserve our foundation as a global leader. And we cannot do that with what we have. It is critical for us to be visionary and goal oriented. Within the next decade, our scientists must be well poised to ensure the resilience of the agricultural enterprise and food supply by:

  • Mitigating climate impacts on food production, soil health, water quality and quantity, supply chains and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Providing innovations that ensure food safety.
  • Identifying biosecurity technologies to prepare for disease and pest outbreaks.
  • Increasing agricultural production efficiency.
  • Eliminating nutrition-based human disease and addressing obesity.
  • Developing biodegradable biomaterials and biofuels for a sustainable economy.

To be world leaders, we need the foundation of an advanced agricultural research infrastructure with facilities that enable work in emerging areas of science, including climate simulation, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, large-animal systems, and sensor-based observation systems at geographically relevant locations.

Investments in infrastructure are critical to maintain our research excellence in support of our food and agricultural systems. These systems will include data intensive technologies and field-based instrumentation to implement precision technologies such as robotics and AI sensors. Such research will enable us to actualize the power behind new technologies and ideas to develop innovative systems where plant and animal systems are resilient to extreme weather conditions, provide climate change mitigation, protect and improve natural resources and are adaptable to changing markets and political circumstances.

If we don’t invest in these types of advancements now, we are at risk of giving away our future as a global food leader. This is a loss that we cannot afford.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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