Agriculture has more challenges than ever before: feeding a predicted world population of 9 to 10 billion by 2050, using fuel crops to increase energy security, and sustaining a healthy environment. This means that global agriculture demand is projected to grow by 70 to 100 percent in the next 40 years or so. So it is useful to take a look at how we at UK are doing at the national and state level in terms of agricultural research and its benefits.
Several studies by prominent economists have estimated the return on U.S. public investment in agricultural research to be as high as $25 for every $1 invested. This makes sense as we reflect on the last century’s gains in crop and animal productivity. Recently however, the Economic Research Service (ERS) has reported that growth in agricultural productivity has slowed in association with declining investments by the federal government.
There must be more growth to keep up with increased food and fuel demands. A recent ERS report stated that raising research and development spending by 3.73 percent annually would increase U.S. agricultural output by 73 percent by 2050, whereas if public R&D investment stays the same, the annual output would increase by only 40 percent. Under the latter scenario, the authors envision a need for more land, labor, capital, and other resources into production.
How are we doing in Kentucky? In the past year we have seen federal cuts of approximately $2.5 million in special grant funds and a loss of $9 million reserved for a building project. We are very fortunate to have maintained better state funding than many states, realizing only an 8 percent cut since 2005. Many states have cut higher education in the double digits. In spite of these reductions, the College of Agriculture reported a banner year in many ways. UK Ag faculty worked on 149 research projects covering every type of agricultural and food enterprise and many other ventures in Kentucky, and they garnered slightly over $34 million in external awards—a new record for the College!
Taxpayer investments made for the college in fiscal year 2010 (July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010) included the “Federal Capacity” investment of almost $5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of its formula funds (we don’t compete for these) and a state investment of $28 million, for a total of approximately $33 million. Additional funds attracted through grants ($34 million) and gifts ($4.5 million) exceed state and federal taxpayer investments. This tells us that our faculty and staff are very competitive and are doing their best to serve Kentucky; they are returning hard dollars, in real time, at more than the combined state and federal investment.
But what is the long-term payoff, the return on investment that hits the ground in Kentucky? We see in this issue many examples of that payoff on crop and animal research. We also see payoffs for Kentucky’s environment that truly may be priceless, as our faculty work very hard to conduct research on keeping our forests healthy. Our research on plant disease is second to none, ensuring the best defense against emerging pests. And in one of the most complex new fields of research, biofuels, we have a strong statewide team investigating Kentucky’s niche in this exciting new area.
We are proud of the College’s work, and we hope you, our stakeholders, share the excitement about the return we give to your investment in agricultural research.
Nancy M. Cox
Associate Dean for Research
Director, Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
S-129 Agricultural Science Center
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40546-0091
Who We Trust
A safe food supply is arguably one of the most important factors in a society’s health and success. Safe food production, transportation, distribution, and handling are all paramount to gaining and keeping consumers’ trust. UK agricultural economist Sayed Saghaian has been studying consumer response to food scares for many years. Recent work he completed with Jonathan Shepherd, UK area extension specialist in farm business management, focused on how consumers would respond to a hypothetical food-safety incident in produce markets.
“We know that food safety incidents are one of the most challenging issues in marketing and policy channels of agricultural products today,” Saghaian said. “We also have reason to believe that food-safety incidents will cause a demand shock, or essentially lower demand for products in the short run.”
Food-safety events are inevitable, and since food is essential to life, Saghaian said learning how consumers respond to these events is vital.
The researchers began their study with the belief that consumers would be less likely to purchase fresh produce following a hypothetical food-safety scare occurring in that market.
They distributed a survey to a random sample of Kentucky households asking them two key questions—who they would trust more when they heard food safety scare rumors and where they would turn for more information during a food safety scare.
“What we found was a large number of those surveyed would trust university scientists, public authorities, media, and family more than producers,” Saghaian said. “That is probably because consumers tend to feel producers have a vested interest in minimizing their economic loss during a food-safety incident.”
Respondents also indicated their first choice for information during a food-safety scare would be the Internet, followed closely by family and friends, newspapers, and television.
“This is important information to know because it can help policy and decision makers know who consumers trust in the wake of a food-safety scare,” Saghaian said. “It will allow them to better communicate important information to the consumers in the most efficient way.”
The Value of a Tree
If we lose the battle, what will our eastern forests look like, sound like, feel like?
A number of non-native invasive species have raided our woods. Insects such as the hemlock woolly adelgid and emerald ash borer and the pathogen responsible for sudden oak death threaten Southern Appalachian woodlands.
Entomology Professor Lynne Rieske-Kinney, with her research team, is focusing on the effects and management of the tiny hemlock woolly adelgid, native to Asia, hard to detect, deadly to eastern hemlocks, and now in twelve Eastern Kentucky counties. She believes that the elimination of hemlocks from our forests will have sweeping consequences.
“There is no replacement in Kentucky or in the South for this tree,” she said.
Eastern hemlock is considered a foundation species in Kentucky forests, because it regulates its ecosystem.
“If you walk into a hemlock forest, the temperature is different, the smell is different, the sound is different. It really does define our forests,” Rieske-Kinney said.
Hemlocks help regulate water temperature, stream flow, and runoff, and influence the soil chemistry. Hemlock foliage decomposes at a different rate than other tree species, and a number of sensitive species rely on it for year-round cover. Without hemlocks, Rieske-Kinney predicts the forest canopy will be lower and thinner and will let in more sunlight.
“It’s hard to say what the value of a tree is,” Rieske-Kinney said, “but certainly the characteristics of that forest are going to change quite drastically—all those things the foundation species dictates will be altered.”
Josh Adkins is an entomology doctoral student and one of Rieske-Kinney’s team of researchers. Examining the characteristics of headwater streams where hemlocks are abundant, he discovered that from the smallest to the largest organisms in that ecosystem, all are influenced by hemlock in some way.
“With every study we do, we find another organism associated with hemlock that, if we did nothing, would be gone,” he said. “It starts out with predators like spiders and goes to caddisflies in a stream, and then it goes on to fish and bird and mammal communities. They all are linked.”
Rieske-Kinney and State Entomologist John Obrycki, have been studying biological control using Laricobius nigrinus, a tiny beetle that preys on the adelgid in all its stages. Along with approved pesticides, the beetle can be another arrow in their quiver.
“We may lose hemlocks, but we’re going to go down fighting,” Rieske-Kinney said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture asserts that climate change is having serious impacts on the nation’s forests and rangelands. Because of that, USDA officials say that demand for renewable energy and biofuel products is exponentially increasing. The USDA believes the U.S. market for woody biomass could be up to 368 million dry metric tons per year. UK forestry specialist Jeff Stringer said Kentucky could realistically supply up to 2 to 5 million metric tons.
“A large potential exists for Kentucky landowners to improve their woodlands and increase the renewable fuel supply,” said Jeff Stringer, UK forestry specialist.
When trees are harvested, sometimes only the bottom part of the main stem proves useful for conventional purposes, leaving a large part of the tree unused. And sometimes no part of the tree is suitable for harvest. UK researchers are studying ways to use the traditionally unwanted parts of the tree as biofuel.
“It allows those landowners an opportunity to make money for some woods that would normally be left standing just because they didn’t have any good sawlogs in them,” he said.
“Maybe landowners are in a situation where they don’t have marketable land as far as traditional forest products go, but growing biomass markets give those lands value,” Stringer said. “The growing market also has the obvious implication of job creation because we’ll need people to do the processing. It may well provide opportunities for people living in Kentucky forest areas.”
Stringer said that removing undesirable trees from the woods that have possibly been degraded by forest fires, high-grade logging, or grazing also benefits the environment by reducing the risk of future damage from wildfire, insect attack, disease, and severe weather.
Stringer and his colleagues are in the process of developing guidelines for harvesting wood for multiple purposes including biomass.
“Obviously we don’t want people to go out there and start cutting everything down,” Stringer said. “If you do that, you’re removing all the nutrients and causing other potential problems. The guidelines, among other things, are going to help keep a certain percentage of the nutrients in place, so there’s mulch and organic matter left for the next forest and to provide habitat for wildlife.”
An Arabidopsis plant inoculated with turnip crinkle virus, showing typical structural traits when exposed to blue light.
Barley yellow dwarf and wheat streak mosaic are two wheat diseases that cause a great amount of damage in Kentucky every five and 10 years, respectively. No wheat varieties are resistant to these diseases, though cultural practices can control them. However, they must be in place to be effective. In between outbreaks, many producers forget and aren’t prepared when the diseases return.
This is one group that University of Kentucky plant pathologists Pradeep and Aardra Kachroo hope to help. The Kachroos, who are husband and wife, are discovering the key components of plant disease resistance and how they interact.
In two studies funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, the Kachroos and their research team identified three regulating factors for plant growth and development that are critical components of disease resistance pathways.
“Plant pathologists have always looked at different disease resistance pathways separately, but now we see more and more that they’re all integrated,” said Aardra Kachroo. “We have pieces of the puzzle, but we have to know how everything fits to get the big picture.”
Plants have an internal clock that alerts them when it’s about to be light. Disrupting the clock makes the plants more susceptible to viruses. The Kachroos found cryptochromes and phototropins, blue light sensors that regulate stomatal (pore) openings, root growth, and phototropism (bending towards light), play critical roles in pathogen resistance. The two proteins signal the plant to retain the disease resistance protein, rather than recycle it.
Plant pathologists have long suspected light played a critical role in plant disease resistance, but this study is the first demonstrating a mechanism at the molecular level.
“Viruses spread very quickly inside the plant. Once they get into the plant’s vascular system, the plant has very limited ability to prevent its spread. Resistance proteins prevent viral spread before they reach the vascular tissue,” Pradeep Kachroo said. “Now we can begin to understand how this is regulated.”
In another study, the Kachroos and their team identified a substance formed by plants’ metabolism that helps them build systemic immunity to fend off future infections, much the way vaccines do in humans.
“If you can generate systemic immunity, you can have great benefits in disease resistance,” Pradeep Kachroo said.
Identifying these components is just the start for the Kachroos. They will continue to piece together the disease resistance puzzle, so perhaps one day Kentucky producers will have the upper hand on diseases.
Don Halcomb, a Western Kentucky producer, knows what kind of impact the College’s research can have for producers; he’s seen its effect on his wheat crop. He talks about the late 1990s, when ag researchers from several departments formed a wheat science group to help the state’s wheat farmers continue the production improvements they began making a decade before.
“With any crop, you have multiple variables, and you won’t see improvements until you’re working on all of them together,” said Halcomb, partner in Walnut Grove Farms in Logan County. “The genetics is part of it, but you also need a plant pathologist to tell you when to spray and a soil scientist to help you with fertility.”
The result of this team approach? Wheat yields in Kentucky continue to go up, and they outstretch yields of surrounding states.
In a difficult economy, when funds for agricultural research are on the chopping block, it’s important to remember Halcomb’s story and others like it. “Reports have shown at least $10 returned on average for every ag research dollar invested,” said Nancy M. Cox, Agricultural Experiment Station director and associate dean for research.
The value of red clover in Kentucky grew from about $3.5 million in 1995 to nearly $7 million in 2002, largely as a result of College research that showed better varieties more than paid for themselves with increased yield.
In 1998, Kentucky farmers were bringing back $518 per acre for bell peppers. Ten years later, that figure had skyrocketed to $2,651 per acre. It’s hard to quantify how much of that increase was due to College research, but some of it certainly was, including work on varieties resistant to leaf spot.
According to a Purdue University study, every dollar invested in veterinary diagnostic research yields a minimum of $6 in economic benefits for animal agriculture. And, of the 10 vaccines now used for horses around the world, six were developed at UK’s Gluck Equine Research Center. The economic impact of not having those vaccines? Devastating.
The Kentucky Agricultural Development Board has worked closely with the College, providing grants to demonstrate research that is particularly valuable for Kentucky.
This local approach is crucial, Halcomb said, “because production problems are unique by location.”
Agricultural research makes economic sense, but it’s important to remember why we’re doing that research in the first place.
“We’ve got to feed a world of 9 to 10 billion people in 2050,” Cox said. “It’s taken the best science we have to accomplish the production improvements we’ve made so far. We need to continue supporting ag research to that level.”