Washington State University will receive a $2 million grant to continue research into increased food production through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research program, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Daily News on Wednesday.
“This is a very critical issue that I’ve been dealing with and agricultural ministers around the world are dealing with,” Vilsack said. “The reality is the world population is growing at a rate that will get us to 9 billion people probably sometime on or before 2050.”
The population is currently 7.4 billion.
“Those people are going to have to be fed, which means that producers around the world are going to have to do a better job of producing food. They’re going to have to produce more,” he said.
“There’s going to be less land available for farming because as populations increase, cities expand, development occurs and there’s less land to plant a crop or raise livestock,” Vilsack added. “Water resources are going to be challenging in many parts of the world either because populations will be using the water or, because of a changing or warmer climate, there won’t be as much water to begin with.”
Vilsack said the world needs more innovation and options in food production.
“We want more plant varieties, we want more speedier ways of evaluating the genetic makeup of livestock and crops so we can be more productive,” he said. “One of the leaders in that effort has been WSU.”
At WSU’s Pullman campus, associate professor Aaron Carter is already hard at work on the solutions Vilsack wants to see.
“Our goal is to develop cultivars (a variety of plant created through selective breeding) … quicker and with more of these traits that are important. We’re utilizing tech to speed up the breeding process to develop varieties faster,” Carter said.
Carter, who specializes in winter wheat breeding and genetics, said the grant money will help him and his colleagues find ways to use technology the university already has to speed up the results.
Carter said the grant is targeted at using two new technologies. One of those, he said, is high throughput genotyping, which is the process of using a plant’s DNA markers to learn more about its genetic makeup. In this case researchers use that information to determine which plant breeds will be most successful in a given area.
“In a way its kind of like being able to pre-screen the varieties on a genetic level to identify which ones are going to be best adapted to the region,” Carter said.
Adding a sensor will further speed up the process.
“Instead of me walking through thousands of plots and trying to score them for winter survival or disease resistance or whatever trait we’re looking for, we’re trying to input a higher throughput technology so that a tractor with a sensor on it goes across the field and can do those evaluations for us,” he said. “And sensors can identify something in the plant that I can’t see with my eye.”
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