A summer of historic heat in the West is scorching our food supply. It is threatening workers’ health, shriveling crops and stressing water resources.
More frequent extreme weather events like the current heat waves mean we must change the future of farming if we want to be a nation that feeds itself.
Florida offers a window on that future. Scientists working together with farmers have placed a big bet on plant breeding to innovate our way to agriculture that’s both more resilient against intensifying weather and that delivers more climate solutions, such as carbon sequestration.
For consumers, this will mean more food choices. Plant breeders at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or UF/IFAS, are working on new versions of old favorites. They’re also working on planting the seeds of potential new industries — with the jobs, businesses and tax revenue that come with that — by developing varieties of foods that Florida currently can’t produce commercially. That is, more made-in-the-USA choices in the produce aisle.
We did it with blueberries. Through the development of varieties that thrive in Florida’s soil and weather, it grew an $80-million-a-year enterprise from scratch. We did it with clams, too, teaching out-of-work fishermen whose livelihood was outlawed by a gillnet fishing ban to become clam farmers. Visitors to the fishing village where this work was centered pass a sign boasting that it’s the No.1 producer of U.S. farm-raised clams.
We’re trying to write another “Clamelot” story with many land-based crops, such as artichokes and pomegranates. We even have high hopes for Florida-grown hops to support a burgeoning craft beer industry.
If our plant breeders can perfect a papaya variety that grows in Florida, it could convert the continental U.S. from being the world’s leading importer of papayas to a major producer of them. Florida-produced vanilla could also be a game changer, as 80% of the world crop comes from a single country — Madagascar — and we are its biggest customer.
Why is Florida the future? Because in a state with 300 commodities, we have long been a leader in plant breeding to produce food that tastes better, needs less water, resists pests and disease so that we can use fewer chemicals, and can be harvested before global competitors flood the market with food produced with labor paid a fraction of what we pay.
UF’s university-wide $80 million artificial intelligence initiative is giving breeders a powerful new tool for sorting through tens of thousands of candidates in search of the high-yield, planet-friendly, delicious foods you crave. We are investing in faculty and have launched a new Ph.D. plant breeding program, the first of its kind in the state and one of just a few in the nation.
The nation’s land-grant universities like UF are essential to creating a viable future for agriculture. Their public funding gives them a public focus. The close relationships that the land-grant university in every state has with local farmers ensures that faculty members focus on addressing farmers’ needs, not academic esoterica. These relationships also give our plant breeders access to commercial farm acreage to grow new varieties under real-world conditions once they identify promising candidates in the lab.
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Federal agriculture policy includes recognition of America’s farmers, ranchers and forest landowners as important players in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Florida’s farmers, in partnership with UF/IFAS and the non-profit Solutions from the Land, are leading a statewide conversation on how to incentivize more climate-smart production of food, fiber, feed and fuel.
In short, Florida’s staking a big bet on farming’s future. The beauty of plant breeding is that it can be trained on virtually any threat to the food supply. Triple-digit temperatures certainly represent a major one.
We don’t believe this summer is a one-off. So we’re working on what will be on your fork a decade from now, no matter how challenging the conditions on the farm that produces it.
J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.