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Innovation on the Farm

January 9, 2017

During assembly on Monday, January 9, Dr. Jim Carrington, president of the Danforth Plant Science Center, spoke to students about how science and technology are embedded in modern farming and said the challenge for the future is to achieve a secure, affordable food supply while preserving the environment. Martha Keeley (science, STEM liaison) introduced the presentation as the second in the JBS STEM Speaker Series, which brings to campus scientists who are doing groundbreaking work in St. Louis.

Oona Gaffney '17 introduced Dr. Carrington: Since joining the Danforth Center in 2011, Dr. Carrington has focused the Center’s work around high technology, big data and computation for the purpose of feeding and powering a growing, changing world, while also preserving the environment and vital natural resources. Under his leadership the Center aims to develop more productive, sustainable crops, and to partner with organizations that are best positioned to solve problems where they exist around the world. Dr. Carrington is recognized for his research on gene silencing, small RNA and virus-host interactions. He is applying this knowledge to improve the productivity of food crops. [see end for more]

Here is a summary of Dr. Carrington's remarks:

He began with a rhetorical question: Who likes natural foods? Of course, everyone likes natural foods and the marketplace has romanticized the concept of "natural." But, Carrington said, we've been tinkering with food for a very long time. In Mexico, 10,000 years ago, farmers cultivated a bushy grass called teosinte and, when noticing natural variations, began a process of artificial selection. Almost nothing we grow today is truly natural — science and technology are irrevocably embedded in all modern farming.

Using his own life span as a measure, Carrington said that when he was born in 1960, one out of every 12 people in the U.S. were farmers (about 8 percent of the total population) and they fed about 26 others who were then freed up to pursue other endeavors. Today, two percent of the population are farmers, each feeding about 155. This striking productivity is made possible by science and technology. If we were to eliminate all of the innovations developed since 1960 and tried to meet today's needs, we would need access to double the amount of farm land and double the amount of fresh water.

By the middle of this century, there will be two billion more people and the amount of food we'll need will be 50 to 60 percent greater than today. It will fall on science and technology to essentially double our productivity on the same land and with the same water. The big challenge is to maintain co-equal focus on food security and the environment.

Another issue Carrington raised is the plight of subsistence farmers who are not yet benefiting from science and technology. For 35 years, he has studied plant viruses, specifically gene silencing in which viruses are literally "turned off." Carrington is currently partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and several African nations to develop a virus-resistant cassava plant, an essential food security crop, which can be distributed through existing channels and at no cost to the farmers.

Dr. Carrington was elected as a Member of the National Academy of Science in 2008. His awards include the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation, the Ruth Allen Award from the American Society for Phytopathology, and the Humboldt Research Award. Prior to joining the Danforth Center, Dr. Carrington was with Oregon State University serving as director of the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing (CGRB), as the Stewart Professor for Gene Research, and as Distinguished Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology. He received his bachelor’s degree in plant science from the University of California, Riverside, and his doctorate in plant pathology from the University of California, Berkeley.