To celebrate National Maryland Day Aug. 24, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting the innovative NIFA-funded research conducted by the University of Maryland (UMD).
In the following interview with Graham Binder, communications director, UMD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR), learn more about the state’s history and the agriculture challenges UMD researchers are working to combat.
Give us some historical background on the founding of your agricultural experiment station.
The Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) at UMD was established in 1888. It fosters research conducted by 115 faculty members within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) and the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. Researchers within AGNR’s six academic departments and other colleges work in campus-based laboratories and four research and education centers across Maryland to conduct state-of-the-art research related to diverse topics, including:
- plant and animal genomics
- infectious diseases
- animal health
- vaccine development
- plant and animal physiology
- basic biology
- human health and nutrition
- food safety and animal nutrition
- environmental and ecosystem health
- water quality, soil, and watershed sciences
- horticulture and landscape design
- interface between agro-ecosystem and aquatic environment
AGNR’s research supports the university’s Land-grant mission to meet state, national, and international agricultural, environmental, economic, and social needs.
What are some of your agricultural experiments station’s most notable successes and innovations?
It’s difficult to narrow down to just a few, but I’ll offer these as some recent successes and innovations:
Next Generation Gene Editing Tools Could Change the Way We Grow Food
Next Generation CRISPR promises to make crops more nutritious and disease resistant–both a huge step toward helping feed a growing global population. Ten years ago, the first gene editing system was introduced to the world. And, just like the first iPhone, it was a masterful leap forward that awed and inspired millions, but it was pretty basic. CRISPR Cas 9, as the first gene editing technology was known, could snip a single, targeted gene from a genome.
Today’s gene-editing technologies being developed by Yiping Qi, associate professor of plant science and landscape architecture, and his postdoctoral researcher, Yingxiao Zhang, can perform a nearly limitless set of tasks at once. They can snip multiple genes while turning others off or on—without deleting them—so they can be used again later if needed. The complex solutions this level of manipulation offers can help farmers grow crops that resist pests, tolerate drought, pack more protein, and grow rapidly enough food to be mass-produced ahead of an impending new threat.
For their innovative work, Yiping and Zhang won a UMD Innovator of the Year award, have received millions of dollars in grants, and presented their work at conferences and in multiple peer-review papers.
Theirs is the story of how science is going to help feed the world.
Driving Maryland Cover-Cropping and No-Till Farming
Cover crops are one of the most widely recognized agricultural practices for reducing nutrient loads to the Chesapeake Bay and improving soil health. Along with that, no-till farming is also known to reduce soil erosion, preserve topsoil and prevent sediment load to nearby waterways. A few decades ago, neither were widely practiced methods. But today, Maryland leads the nation in cover crop production and no-till farming. That’s in large part due to the efforts of UMD faculty members like Associate Research Scientist Kenneth Staver, Professor Ray Weil and many others whose work has been instrumental in discovering how nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous move through the soil, and how cover crops not only improve water quality but improve soil health, reduce weeds and protect crops from drought. With NIFA support, our researchers are continuing investigations of cover crops to determine the benefits of different species under a variety of conditions and planting methods. For instance, Assistant Professor Nicole Fiorellino is looking at the capacity of hemp as a cover crop to take up phosphorous, and Extension Agent Kurt Vollmer is studying the potential for burning cover crops as a weed management strategy.
Breeding Maryland’s First Apple
The first apple bred specifically for Maryland climate and growing conditions was invented and patented here at UMD by Professor Christopher Walsh, now emeritus. The Antietam Blush apple took 28 years to develop through painstaking cross-breeding, but it is perfectly suited to our hot, humid summers, and is resistant to diseases like fire blight that plague other varieties grown in the state. It was bred to be short and sturdy, so it needs less tending and is easy to harvest, and it ripens in October during the peak agro-tourism season. The variety has been issued a U.S. Patent, and although it takes a while to through all the steps needed to get to market, the Antietam Blush and six more varieties in the pipeline are poised to provide a really strong boost to the apple industry in the entire region.
Fixing the World's Wheat Problem
Wheat is among the world’s most important staple crops providing 20% of the calories consumed by the global population. Considered a foundation of human civilization, the wheat we eat today has been cultivated over thousands of years to produce desirable traits such as large grains and high yields. But modern wheat lacks the genetic diversity essential for adaptation to emerging threats such as a changing environment, pests and diseases. As the global population continues to expand, modern wheat producers will need more resilient forms of wheat to continue feeding the world.
That’s why Vijay Tiwari has assembled an international team of researchers to identify genes for pathogen- and pest-resistance in an ancient species of wild wheat. Their goal is to breed those tolerance traits into domestic wheat varieties. Tiwari, an assistant professor of plant science and landscape architecture, received a $799,775 grant from NIFA to lead the three-year plant breeding partnership.
How does the NIFA-funded research conducted by your institution serve the citizens of your state?
Our NIFA-funded research serves the people of Maryland in many distinct ways. We help to:
- establish a healthy food System and ensure global food and nutritional security.
- ensure healthy watersheds and the Chesapeake Bay.
- advance innovative, profitable, and sustainable agricultural production systems.
- improve human, animal, and environmental health.
What are some of the unique agricultural challenges of your state that you are working to address?
One of the nation’s most treasured natural resources, the Chesapeake Bay is central to Maryland’s livelihood. We work closely with a variety of stakeholders to ensure proven scientific practices are put in place to protect and preserve the bay. Phosphorus and nitrogen reduction from farm fields are crucial to improve water quality and preserve aquatic life, an issue AGNR takes very seriously with several researchers working on this front.
Maryland also struggles with sea level rise and saltwater intrusion. Coastal farms are struggling with productivity and profit due to these unfortunate effects of climate change. Many acres of once-viable farmland are now sitting underwater. Sea level rise also contributes to coastal erosion, storm surge, stormwater management challenges, rising groundwater, and septic system failures.
We are heavily focused on food insecurity (availability, access, affordability) in urban areas such as Baltimore City. Mental health and farm stress management comprise another critical issue where we have seen some wonderful support from NIFA.
Going forward, how do you see your NIFA-funded research addressing your state’s most pressing issues?
We will continue to execute high-level research to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, improve quality of life, preserve our natural resources, combat the harmful effects of a changing climate, mitigate climate change, and improve human and animal health. NIFA support helps us advance a number of important commodities and industries across the state, including but not limited to poultry, dairy, soybeans, and grains. We are also working in exciting areas such as CRISPR to sustain and advance crop and animal production.
Top photo: United States of America lights during night as it looks like from space. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.