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Commentary: Research aids farmers with new tools and solutions

Issue Date: October 27, 2021
By David Still
David Still
Crop nutrition students at California State University, Fresno, harvest romaine lettuce as part of a cultivation project employing Agricultural Research Institute approaches for nitrogen use efficiency.
Photo/David Still

The list of challenges to California food and agriculture is long—from demonstrating positive impact on the fight against climate change to ongoing struggles with labor, supply chain efficiency and understanding the myriad of advances in human nutrition.

But agriculture is also ripe with opportunity for problem solving and solution building. At the crux of this opportunity lies an important area of focus that can pay dividends financially and otherwise: applied research.

Applied research is actionable and can be put to work on the farm, field and ranch in the short term, often with positive bottom-line impacting results. Long term, opportunity exists to solve tough challenges and—using quality, peer-reviewed science coupled with understanding of the values that drive stakeholders—earn trust along the way.

For those reasons, investment in applied research should be prioritized by government and private industry alike.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom's budget included investments in Climate Smart Agriculture programs such as Healthy Soils and efforts to support biodiversity resilience and state water efficiency and enhancement programs. In addition, a recent climate package was the largest in the state's history and represents significant investments in Climate Smart Agriculture.

These investments should be applauded, and through industry collaboration and support, can be further amplified and focused to maximize impact. What's more, by partnering with our state's rich higher education infrastructure, research dollars can do double duty by solving real-world challenges while also engaging young people and building future leaders in agriculture. The Agricultural Research Institute meets these objectives.

ARI—which matches industry funds dollar for dollar to maximize research investments—taps into the California State University system to address global, national, and local challenges and opportunities.

ARI brings forth expertise in areas such as Climate Smart Agriculture, biodiversity, improving water and nitrogen use efficiency, developing a safe and nutritious food supply and using remote sensing and artificial intelligence to manage crops.

What's more, ARI reaches across disciplines and beyond the colleges of agriculture to engage students recognizing that solving today's challenges and building opportunity will require more collaboration than ever before. Students and faculty in business, engineering, mathematics and computer science are just a few of the areas of study that can provide immense value to agriculture. We hear time and again from agriculture about the need for talent across the supply chain. Students involved in applied research build practical skills, develop critical-thinking abilities and gain knowledge and hands-on experience.

By allowing students to roll up their sleeves on research efforts, we are engaging students in meaningful ways and giving them boots-on-the-ground training that can't be learned in a classroom. It's this experience that breeds the future talent needed for today's modern food systems.

Applied research through ARI is done according to the highest standards of ethical conduct, transparency and best practices—something critical in an era where science is often the subject of public mistrust.

Over the last decade or so, while scientific advances have been exponential, questions have been raised about issues close to the very heart of the scientific process. These issues include pitting science against science, privatization of science for competitive advantage, inequality of access to knowledge and politicization of science. Even so, there is opportunity to turn negative perceptions around.

The recent rapid introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, only made possible by public investments in research, is one example of good science at work. Yet, the pushback by some people on vaccines demonstrates that science alone is often not enough to win public support.

Rather, good science, when coupled with understanding of the values that matters to constituents, is a winning strategy. The world is moving faster than ever these days.

Agriculture, which has long been known to be at the whim of everything from bad weather to invasive pests and changing consumer trends, is also grappling with a rapidly changing world due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while it could be argued that the worst of the pandemic-related disruption is in the rearview mirror, the next big shakeup could be closer than we think. Public and private investment in research will help ensure we are prepared for whatever may come.

The inherent volatility of agriculture, combined with new and mounting pressures all around, can lead to a reduction in research investments. While tightening the research belt may, on hand, feel reasonable, setting money aside for research is paramount not only to the success of individual businesses and commodity groups, but also to the future of California agriculture as a whole.

By prioritizing applied research, we can work to build more resilient and sustainable food systems for today, tomorrow and generations to come.

(David Still is executive director of the Agricultural Research Institute. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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