By 2050, the world’s population will near 10 billion. By 2100, that figure will climb to more than 11 billion, according to United Nations projections.
That’s a lot of mouths to feed.
And there’s not a lot of time for farmers and scientists to figure out how to increase the world’s food production, particularly with other challenges that massive population growth brings.
“There is a sense of urgency. We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to find a way to feed the world, double the food supply,” said Richard Linton, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State. “And we all know if we don’t produce enough food, what the outcome is: it’s war, it’s competition.”
To avoid such competition, N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is counting on collaboration between its plant scientists and others on and off campus, including engineers, economists, biologists, marketers, data scientists and more. The college believes its new interdisciplinary approach to plant sciences and a new state-of-the-art $160.2 million building on Centennial Campus will help it solve such global challenges.
The N.C. State Plant Sciences Initiative is designed to help North Carolina be the leader in meeting the food needs of that growing population, much of which is forecast for the world’s least developed countries. The 47 least developed countries are expected to see a 33 percent increase in population over the next 10 years with their population nearly doubling between 2017 and 2050, according to the U.N. In other nations, the middle class is expected to boom, producing a greater desire for livestock and dairy products. Combined it could have an impact on water supplies.
The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, established in 2014 by the federal farm bill, has identified six challenge areas for feeding the world, including water scarcity, soil health and an urban food system.
“The timeline is very thin and very short. That’s why we’re working as hard as we can to make smart decisions about bringing these disciplines together so we can come up with solutions faster than we ever have before,” Linton said in an in-person interview on campus.
Though the work, N.C. State officials stress, is more important than the building, the structure will be the most overt sign of change.
The new building, with its rooftop greenhouse, small auditorium and open work spaces, will grab the most attention. Construction on the N.C. State Plant Sciences Building — naming rights can be had by a donor — is expected to begin in May and a groundbreaking ceremony is set for Sept. 6. It is expected to open in the fall of 2021. The building will sit near Partners Way, Main Campus Drive and Oval Drive, next to the Golden LEAF Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center.
Many of the school’s agriculture buildings were built in the 1950s. The space, which officials say will meet or exceed standards of top private facilities, should help generate greater results and attract and retain the best people, Briggs said, said Stephen Briggs, the launch director for the Plant Sciences Initiative. The college expects to hire about 140 staff members as part of the initiative. More than half have already been hired.
“That building is designed to do science in a totally different way then I learned how to do science,” said Steve Lommel, associate dean of the agriculture college. “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to capture all the science and all the other fields and apply them to plant problems, plant issues and plant opportunities.”
The $2 billion Connect NC bond, passed by voters in 2016, delivered $85 million for the project. Two grants from the Golden LEAF Foundation brought in another $48 million, and commodity associations and others affiliated with agriculture in the state chipped in $9 million. The building is 90 percent paid for and fundraising continues, Briggs said.
“This is not just a one-guitar song. We’ve got all members of the orchestra playing,” said Dan Weathington, executive director of the North Carolina Small Grain Growers Association, which donated $1.25 million to the project.
The association’s 1,400 members grow wheat, rye, oats, barley, grain sorghum and canola. The wheat growers, for example, want to push their yield per acre from its current 59 bushel average to 100 bushels. To do that, they’re hoping researchers and scientists at N.C. State and elsewhere can help solve the scab problem. Scab is a fungus that attacks the plant when it’s close to maturity, often after rain. Currently, farmers must fight the fungus with fungicide.
“We need plants that are completely resistant,” Weathington said. “If we can increase yield, we increase income.”
That’s the type of work N.C. State will be doing. The project stems from strategic planning that happened in 2012 about moving North Carolina agriculture forward. The state generated $11.4 billion in cash receipts from farm commodities in 2017 with $3.7 billion coming from crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The fields of study are divided into three main categories: plant improvement, plant resiliency and sustainability and, in what could end up being the fastest-growing part, using data to make better decisions.
Plant improvement includes research into growing plants of higher yield and quality, such as production practices, chemical treatments or new varieties that are drought or disease resistant — precisely what the wheat growers are looking for. Plant resiliency and sustainability means doing it a way that protects limited environmental resources.
“If we have to double the food supply in the next 25 to 30 growing seasons, we need to do that with less land, with water challenges, with disease challenges. We also need to do this in a way to ensure that we have a sustainable system and protect the environment,” Linton said.
That’s where data could help farmers decide what and when to grow, how best to fertilize, and which variety to grow in which climate or soil type. Much of that information already exists — on climate, yield, disease, weather patterns — through collection at research farms in all 100 counties. But turning that raw data into useful information for farmers on the ground, around the country and the world, is the next frontier — one N.C. State hopes to lead in.
The plan is to make commonplace these type of interdisciplinary programs with partnerships between multiple colleges within a university and private industry working alongside students and faculty. The proximity to industry-leading firms in Research Triangle Park, such as BASF, Bayer Crop Science and Novozymes among others, is another key for the program, officials said. There are 103 biotechnology and life sciences companies at RTP, according to its business directory.
“To me, success 20 years from now is this is all normal stuff that happens every single day,” Linton said. “This concept of bringing the entire university together has never been done on this campus, and it’s transformational and it will change the way, I believe, we think and do at N.C. State.”