Dan Murphy: Accepting the Challenge

A recent — and quite informative — article in Drovers (originally published by AgriLife TODAY) titled, “Probiotic Research Could Address Nitrite Poisoning and Methane” got me to thinking.

Not just about the idea of using beneficial bacteria to manage nitrite levels in cattle and tamp down the methane emissions from livestock contributing to climate change — important initiatives both — but more so about a profound quote from the researcher profiled in the piece, Elizabeth Latham, PhD, lead scientist with Bezoar Laboratories (which she founded) and winner of a 2017 Young Entrepreneurs Award from global food giant Unilever for her potentially game-changing probiotic bacteria.

“There’s an insane bottleneck in getting amazing ideas and technologies to the public,” she said, “because scientists don’t want to be business people, and business people don’t want to be scientists.”

Latham’s amazing idea, developing a bacterial strain that can metabolize potentially toxic nitrite that accumulates when cattle consume forage high in nitrates, has been shown to reduce methane emissions by more than 50% when tested experimentally on cattle. Her data estimate that if as few as 1% of cattle producers in the U.S. used the probiotic, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking a million cars off the road.

That’s huge, but we’re talking about reaching thousands of ranchers and feeders across the West with a product that requires extensive experimentation, development and implementation. That’s the bottleneck to which Latham referred, and it connects to a larger framework encompassing challenges integral – yet hardly confined – to agriculture.

Stay with me here, because I believe the issues I’m about to outline overlap with our nation’s most critical challenges in this century and beyond. They are:

› Food security. As the world’s population soars toward 9 or even 10 billion people by 2050, the challenge of feeding that many mouths will encompass everything from increased productivity in raising both crops and livestock; energy self-sufficiency on farms and ranches; development of cellular agriculture; deployment of high-tech indoor “farms” and vertical food producing systems in urban areas; and perhaps most importantly, much greater agricultural diversity in terms of people and plants.

› Scientific-technical education. We need not hundreds, but thousands more researchers such as Dr. Latham to push forward on R&D to commercialize “green” energy projects, “smart” technologies in growing, harvesting and processing food crops, new software and AI projects, healthcare innovations and medical interventions, genetic research and better methods of utilizing advanced manufacturing systems.

› Environmental preservation. We’re past the point, globally speaking, of merely protecting natural resources and wildlife habitat. We either become fanatical about preserving arable acreage for farming and rangeland suited for livestock — even as food production virtually doubles — or we’ll witness wholesale extinction of wildlife species, irreversible destruction of forests and a loss of biodiversity too horrific to contemplate. That will require strict conservation methods, more efficient use of water and energy resources and greater emphasis on fostering compatibility between wildlife habitat and farmland, between wildlife and livestock and between commercial operations and protection of critical ecosystems.

What’s the common thread linking these challenges? Science and technology and the need to significantly expand our national investment in both.

As a nation, we need more scientists, more researchers, more agronomists and more engineers. That requires a major investment in both K-12 and higher education, one we appear reluctant, socially and politically, to make.

As a nation, we need a better, bigger, faster pipeline lab to launch, as Dr, Latham noted. We need to streamline and accelerate the process of moving from prototype to commercialization for all kinds of amazing ideas and potentially impactful innovations, whether in agriculture, food science, manufacturing or information technology.

As a nation, we need to ramp up ours and other countries’ food, forage and fiber production — but without obliterating open space, wilderness or existing farmland being encroached upon by urbanization.

None of those will be easy or cheap. Or quickly solved.

Without scientific progress, supported by investments to sustain often-lengthy development cycles, there is no pathway forward to address these challenges.

Without tens of thousands of researchers — millions worldwide — there is no opportunity to commercialize scientific breakthroughs capable of moving the needle on issues vital to our very survival as a planet and species.

And without a techno-savvy workforce of sufficient size and skill, there is no way to apply potentially powerful solutions on a scale big enough to create the necessary impact on everything from production efficiency to energy management to land use and resource conservation, to note but a few.

The critical challenges of food security, technical and scientific education and environmental preservation are interconnected, as are the initiatives needed to address them. We have the means; what we’re missing is the money and the political will to make it happen.

So which comes first, the commitment, or the cash?

I’ll share some ideas on that subject in this space tomorrow.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.