PBS NewsHour special features ACES faculty and spaces

Professor Emily Heaton and PBS NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien discuss bioenergy crops at the Energy Farm at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign..
Professor Emily Heaton and PBS Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien discuss bioenergy crops at the University of Illinois Energy Farm.

URBANA, Ill. — “Feeding the world has never been an easy job, but on a warming planet hurtling toward 10 billion inhabitants, the challenges are growing faster than the crops — agriculture is at a tipping point,” said Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien from the quad of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to kick off the PBS NewsHour special event “Tipping Point: Agriculture on the Brink” on May 24. 

“We are at the center of some of the most productive farmland in the world, and as we speak, farmers all throughout this region are planting seeds in hopes of yet another plentiful harvest in the fall,” O’Brien said. “This evening we are tackling agriculture, which is a victim, a culprit, and potentially a solution to the climate crisis.”

Five experts from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) weighed in on opportunities to combat climate change and future-proof our food and bioenergy supply. Several ACES faculty took O’Brien on a behind-the-scenes tour of research farms, laboratories, and greenhouses that are home to cutting-edge resources such as a ‘spidercam’ that is used to identify yield-boosting genetics and a million-dollar network of sensors that measure how greenhouse gases interact with crops. 

Watch "Tipping Point: Agriculture on the Brink."

Boosting production

“A few generations ago, humanity was staring down a hunger crisis in many parts of the world. Global population was far outpacing food production, but science saved the day with a breakthrough known as the Green Revolution,” O’Brien said, referencing the need for another to meet our society’s burgeoning demand for food.  

“The base of the Green Revolution was actually a genetic revolution,” said Stephen Long, professor of crop sciences and plant biology. “What we saw is that if you can provide farmers in these countries with seed which is going to produce, if you like, a high yield, that is a big factor in getting you out of this problem.”

“We've now shown on the farm here, three different ways in which we can boost photosynthesis, which has upped productivity on the farm by about 20%, but there's certainly much more to be done to really combine this to utilize it, to get it into different crops,” said Long, referring to Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), an $83 million effort to engineer crops to better translate solar energy into increased yields.

Watch Stephen Long on PBS NewsHour.

Improving resilience 

O’Brien spoke with crop sciences professor Andrew Leakey within iBioFAB, an automated biofoundry that applies robotics and artificial intelligence to accelerate synthetic biology research. Leakey leads the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, which explores opportunities to improve bioenergy production from field to market. 

Water is the most important factor limiting crop production, and water will become increasingly limited with climate change. Leakey’s research focuses on developing crops that require less water and can be more productive during droughts by better understanding and engineering the microscopic pores on the leaves called stomata.

“[Stomata] are actually where the carbon dioxide is taken up into the leaf to then be captured by photosynthesis; it's also where water vapor escapes from the leaf to the atmosphere,” Leakey said. “We're trying to reduce the number of those pores. That's one way we think we can make the plants demand less water.”

Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, researchers can measure traits — such as the pattern of the stomata on the leaf surface — more quickly. They can also tinker with “digital twins” to see what proposed changes have the desired outcome, saving precious time required to conduct the same work in the real world.   

Watch Andrew Leakey on PBS NewsHour.

Bioenergy alternatives

Crop sciences professor Emily Heaton drove O’Brien to the Energy Farm, located south of campus, to see the bioenergy crops driving “another kind of Green Revolution for agriculture,” as O’Brien said. “Here they have a bumper crop of bioenergy plants.” 

“The goal is to keep the ancient carbon in the ground,” O’Brien continued, referring to the transition from fossil fuels to bioenergy alternatives. “They're focused on Miscanthus giganteus, a hearty, fast-growing perennial grass plant that grows on marginal land in cold climates.” 

“For temperate environments, Miscanthus is the most productive crop that we know,” Heaton said. “It takes more CO2 out of the air and puts it in a form that we can use every year. We just come through and cut it every year. It's the Crock-Pot of plants — you set it and forget it.”

Watch Emily Heaton on PBS NewsHour.

Environmental conservation

Chemical fertilizers are added to boost yield but are also prone to runoff and leach into water funneled into the Gulf of Mexico, producing algal blooms that are harmful to marine life, O’Brien said as the discussion turned to how agriculture impacts the environment. 

“Because we don't understand the phenomenon scientifically, farmers are going to err on the side of being cautious, and they're going to apply fertilizer that may not be used by the crop, and that is more susceptible to being lost,” said Andrew Margenot, crop sciences professor and Illinois Extension specialist.  

Margenot and O’Brien described opportunities for farmers to combat this problem by planting hedgerows and riparian barriers. Conservation tillage practices and cover crops also help retain water and conserve precious topsoil. 

“[Cover crops] do have a lot of promise to reduce soil erosion,” Margenot said. “They shield the surface to protect it from wind and raindrops. They also have living roots in the ground so they're fantastic for soil biology.”

Farmers have made massive strides in conservation by adopting reduced tillage to mitigate soil loss, Margenot said. “By virtue of things like mechanization and herbicides, we can do no-tillage at scale. I have a lot of optimism for the future because we're only improving the ability and the adoption by farmers to preserve soil through things like no-tillage.”

Watch Andrew Margenot on PBS NewsHour.

Sustainable farming 

College of ACES alumnus and sixth-generation farmer Michael Ganschow described how his family has turned to no-till practices to conserve soil on their farms, beginning with his grandfather who was an early adopter of the practice in the late 1970s. 

“[My grandfather] was farming some ground that was very susceptible to erosion,” Ganschow said. “It really bothered him when he would put all that time and effort into preparing a seedbed and trying to grow a successful crop, getting these heavy rain events and just seeing that soil erode away.”

Ganschow’s family was featured in the documentary called “Sustaining Our Future: A Farm Family Story” (produced by Illinois Farm Bureau), which O’Brien described as “a compelling and emotional look at the challenges and opportunities of farming more sustainably.”

“The way I look at it is we want to be stewards of the land,” Ganschow said. “Our goal, at least on our farm, is always trying to leave the ground better than the way you got it.”

Watch Michael Ganschow on PBS NewsHour.

Agricultural legislation

Protecting the livelihood of farmers like the Ganschows was the original goal of the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that governs various aspects of food and agricultural policy in the U.S. The Farm Bill originated from the Great Depression during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in 1933. 

“The idea was trying to help get prices up and incomes up because farmers were going bankrupt — they were losing the farms. We were concerned that you lose too many farms, who's going to produce that food down the road?” said Jonathan Coppess, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics, director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program, Illinois Extension specialist, and a leading expert on the Farm Bill.

Since its inception, the Farm Bill has grown to a $1.3 trillion legislative package, O’Brien said. “The debate is a great opportunity to take the climate emergency head-on and consider more sustainable ways to feed the nation and the planet.”

Coppess said the Farm Bill is a good place to continue efforts. “There's a lot of opportunities and different programs that we can work on and revise, and I would say update creatively around this set of challenges that we see coming at our food supply.”

Watch Jonathan Coppess on PBS NewsHour.

Program wrap-up

The livestreamed program also featured Illinois Farm Bureau director of environmental policy Lauren Lurkins; NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies senior research scientist and 2022 World Food Prize winner Cynthia Rosenzweig; Triple Helix Institute founder and executive director Sarah Garland; and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow. The special event was organized by PBS NewsHour Producer Kate Tobin

At the end of the program, O’Brien asked which way the balance might tip: “When I think of a tipping point, I think of bad things happening, I think of icebergs dropping into the ocean or some sort of climate effect that is uncontrollable. But there are also tipping points for solutions aren't there?”  

The “Tipping Point” series is sustained by a generous grant from the principal funder, the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports Margenot’s research. Additional funding is provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and John F. Swift.