Food and Agriculture

logo of sun rising over fieldsOur research in food and agriculture directly impacts consumers and industry, while advancing the sustainability and security of food systems the world over. In short, we’re changing lives.

These impacts are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars.  

Below, we showcase a fraction of our world-class research in the area of food and agriculture. You can also view a pdf version and subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research.

Hacking photosynthesis: The RIPE Project

Don Ort and Steve Long

Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) is an international, multimillion-dollar research project led by researchers in the Departments of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at Illinois and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the U.K. Government’s Department for International Development. RIPE scientists are engineering plants to photosynthesize more efficiently to increase the yields of staple food crops and improve global food security. Their ultimate goal is to help feed the world by equipping farmers with higher-yielding crops that will also increase their income and opportunities.

Since its inception in 2012, the RIPE project has proved through laboratory, greenhouse, and replicated field trial experiments that photosynthetic efficiency and productivity can be improved by leaps and bounds. For example, plants have a glitch that can cause them to take up oxygen instead of carbon, hijacking photosynthesis. RIPE developed a shortcut to help plants get back to fixing carbon, improving productivity of model crops by as much as 40 percent. In other trials, hacking other inefficient photosynthetic processes, the project has independently achieved productivity increases of 15 to 20 percent.

The RIPE team is translating these successes to food crops such as soybeans, cassava, cowpea, and rice to evaluate their impact on food yield. It will likely take 12 to 15 years to optimize these technologies for efficacy in food crops and move them into farmers’ fields at scale. The RIPE project and its sponsors are committed to ensuring smallholder farmers in developing countries have free global access to the project’s discoveries and intellectual property.

Funding: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $63 M; Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), $15 M; UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), $5 M

ACES investigators and departments

Stephen Long (Crop Sciences)
Don Ort (Crop Sciences)
Lisa Ainsworth (USDA ARS/Crop Sciences affiliate)
Carl Bernacchi (USDA ARS/Crop Sciences affiliate)

Related news stories

Scientists boost photosynthesis by 40 percent

RIPE project receives $13 M investment

Scientists boost crop production by 47 percent by speeding up photorespiration

Outsmarting agricultural weeds

waterhemp in corn

Agricultural weeds are more than a nuisance – herbicides and herbicide-tolerant crops represent a significant cost to farmers. And when chemicals fail, crop yield loss is even more costly. These failures are occurring more often for waterhemp, a major weed of corn and soybean fields, due to its mounting resistance to multiple classes of herbicides. But researchers from the Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois have discovered, through a grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, that proper management could slow waterhemp’s path to total resistance.

Taking advantage of historical data from more than 100 central Illinois farms, they discovered the prevailing management paradigm – rotating between different herbicides each year – wasn’t effective. Instead, they found that farmers who applied multiple herbicides in a single shot were more than 80 times less likely to encounter resistant waterhemp in their fields. The finding almost immediately changed chemical industry recommendations to farmers.

But the researchers didn’t stop there. They discovered why, at the genetic level, herbicide rotation doesn’t work. And they provided evidence to suggest that when many farmers band together to apply tank-mixed herbicides on large scales, resistance could decrease even more dramatically. Although it’s too soon to see a major reduction in resistance, many farmers are taking the new approach.

Funding: USDA NIFA AFRI, $500,000; Monsanto Co., $200,000; and the Illinois Soybean Association, $100,000

ACES investigators and departments
Adam Davis (Crop Sciences)
Patrick Tranel (Crop Sciences)

Related news stories

Study uses farm data to aid in slowing evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds

Herbicide rotation ineffective against resistance in waterhemp

Study promotes cooperative weed management to curb herbicide resistance

Reducing food waste, increasing food security

Dining hall

The issue of food loss and waste is receiving increased attention around the globe, not only as a threat to food security, but in terms of its negative environmental and economic consequences. In the United States, the USDA puts food waste estimates at 30-40 percent of the food supply. Illinois researchers are working to understand what motivates food-wasting behavior, and what interventions may be successful in reducing food waste among certain populations. Knowing that young adults—18- to 24-year-olds—have a higher tendency to waste than other age groups, the researchers collected valuable information about the eating habits of college students, living on or off campus, and have piloted successful food waste interventions in campus dining halls. Further research on the eating habits of young adults is helping the researchers understand more about food insecurity rates among college students, information that can inform alleviation and prevention policies.

Funding: Funded in part by USDA NIFA and the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss 

ACES investigators and departments
Brenna Ellison (Agricultural and Consumer Economics)
Shelly Nickols-Richardson (Food Science and Human Nutrition)
Cassandra Nikolaus (Food Science and Human Nutrition)

Related news stories

Why are young adults wasting so much food? Study looks at perceptions and food behaviors

Study: Impact of food waste campaigns muted, but point toward right direction

Keeping sperm viable longer


Modern livestock producers can’t leave breeding to chance. That’s why many use artificial insemination to improve genetics, reduce disease transfer, and increase the efficiency of farm operations. But the practice has its challenges, including the need to synchronize AI with ovulation, which can be difficult to detect. Often, producers choose to administer hormones that synchronize ovulation among the entire herd. With government regulations limiting hormone options, it is more important than ever to make AI more effective no matter when it happens.

Illinois animal scientists have discovered how the female reproductive tract can store sperm after AI and are trying to develop a system that can increase sperm storage time and viability both inside and outside the animal. They are working on a proof-of-concept to show that sperm could remain viable for days after injection, reducing the need for precision timing or herd synchronization. Ultimately, this would make the use of AI easier, more efficient, and more cost-effective.

The goal is to provide farmers with new reproductive management options that can supply the world with a healthy protein source at a low cost with minimal environmental impact. But because the research focuses on sperm interactions with the female reproductive tract on a basic level, the results also have the potential to inform human infertility research.  

Funding: National Institutes of Health, $1.1 M

ACES investigators and departments
David Miller (Animal Sciences)