Feeding the World: One Byte at a Time

landscape of farmland against blue sky

Cornell has started the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA) to solve some of the world’s most pressing questions by connecting disciplines within and outside of Cornell.

  • How can Cornell impact the agri-food system to help feed close to 10 billion people by 2050?
  • How does changing consumer demand and demographics affect the global food system?
  • What will the impact of climate change have on agriculture?
  • How can our crops be more resilient to weather and pests?
  • How can we improve water and fertilizer usage?
  • How can we reduce foodborne illnesses around the world?
  • How do we solve food waste?

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.” – Steve Jobs

What makes Cornell unique?

As a university, Cornell’s approach to Digital Agriculture represents a unique collaboration between five of their own colleges on campus with businesses and government off campus. The purpose is to develop, change and improve the way we grow our crops and supply our food.

The Cornell Workshop on Digital Agriculture (CIDA): “Transforming Agriculture and Food Systems” is led by Susan McCouch, the Director of the new Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA) and the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics, along with Associate Directors Abe Stroock, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Hakim Weatherspoon, Associate Professor of Computer Science.  Kathryn Boor (Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), Lance Collins (Dean of the College of Engineering), and Greg Morrisett (Dean of Computing and Information Science) have been champions of the evolving Initiative and faculty efforts.

Importantly, CIDA represents a cross-university collaboration with faculty members from CALS as well as the Colleges of Engineering, Computing and Information Science, Business, and Veterinary Medicine where students and faculty will work together to use digital agriculture to answer these challenging questions facing agriculture today.

CIDA is combining agriculture with data solutions partners such as Microsoft and IBM. The USDA has committed to hiring 12 new researchers at Cornell as part of this collaborative effort. Additionally, Cornell is a Land Grant College – which means they work with farmers around the world helping to research and develop solutions for their specific crop and country. The result of this broad approach is to develop direct solutions to manage water delivery to plants, improve animal health, and enhance plant breeding and soil science.

What is Digital Agriculture?

Digital Agriculture is all about using data and information to maximize the food and agricultural supply chain. That would be from dirt to dinner! It means digitally collecting all the information on the farm and within the food supply chain. Solutions for animal and crop health, farm profitability, yield management, food production, and social welfare will be found with big data management and artificial intelligence.

The success of agriculture can be seen through the improvements that have been made in the Dairy industry. Today, each cow can produce 2,429 gallons of milk per year. That is a tall order compared to the 548 gallons per cow produced in 1944. Digital Agriculture will enable these kinds of efficiencies.

Cornell is well suited for CIDA. Some of the types of programs that are underway are using robots and sensors. LoveBeets, a U.K. company which focuses on just beets, and Cornell are collaborating to improving beet production and weed reduction with new yield algorithms and drones. Recently, a research project has been developed so a robot can touch a vine ripe with grapes and determine the leaf to fruit ratio as well as estimate the yield before harvest time.  Another group has developed their own sensor which helps apple orchards deliver water only where it is needed.  Research on indoor farming is underway to reduce the labor and lighting costs as well as to understand the effects of CO2 on plant yield.

FarmBeats is a collaborative program with Microsoft. Utilizing the Microsoft Cloud and artificial intelligence, farmers are able to improve yields on their crops while lowering overall costs and their environmental impact.

Digital technology and the grocery store – what this means to you

Does anyone else dislike dragging themselves to the grocery store after a long day to pick up items for dinner? Well, next time you are there, think about how lucky you are to have all these amazing food choices right at your fingertips.

And it all starts on the farm. Every single food item at the grocery store begins in the soil on a farm.Now, take a macro look at this. The Earth is not getting any bigger and we can’t keep cutting down forests and encroaching on open space to grow more food. Digital technology can help us make the most of the farmland we have today. It can help farmers become more profitable and efficient. What happens on the farm affects the water we drink, the national parks we visit, the biodiversity of life surrounding the farms, and the price and quality of the food we eat.

The (Potential) Power of CBD

hemp flower and jar of CBD oil

Multiple hours on the keyboard and pulling weeds in the garden have given me arthritis trouble in my fingers. When I was discussing this with a friend, she recommended CBD oil to help ease the pain and inflammation. That got my attention. Is there any research to back this up?

CBD has jumped into the consumer spotlight because of the shifting regulatory landscape of marijuana and hemp, and the recent FDA  approval of a cannabis-derived CBD medicine for rare types of types of epilepsy.

Producers of CBD are taking advantage of the growing library of science supporting a wide range of health benefits, and most particularly, consumer demand. You can drop CBD on your tongue as a tincture, rub it on your skin as a cream, inhale it as a vapor, eat it as a gummy bear, or drink it infused in water.

But here is the problem: There is much consumer and corporate confusion about the legality of CBD products. Here is why:

  • The FDA has not approved CBD as a food supplement. There are two reasons.
    • Marijuana is not legal in all 50 states. States have their own laws regulating marijuana, medical marijuana, and hemp cultivation.  According to the FDA, “it is a prohibited act to introduce or deliver for introduction into interstate commerce any food (including animal food or feed) to which THC or CBD has been added.”
    • And the second reason is that CBD has been approved as a drug product (the epilepsy drugs) and is precluded from the food supplement category.  While the FDA will continue to support “rigorous scientific research on potential medical treatments using marijuana and its components that seek to be developed through the appropriate scientific channels,” they remain concerned about the proliferation and illegal marketing of unapproved CBD-containing products with unproven medical claims.”
  • The Drug Enforcement Agency has moved CBD drugs (prescription, as the epilepsy drugs), with a THC content of below 0.01% to a schedule 5 drug, provided the drug has been approved by the FDA. Any other CBD product is still wrapped up in the federal marijuana ban.
  • While it is easy to buy CBD online, (THC must be below 0.3%), there is a lack of testing standards. A recent study indicated that 70% of online CBD extracts are mislabeled.

So, what is CBD?

 CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of many naturally occurring compounds called cannabinoids in marijuana and hemp plants. CBD and THC (which is what gets you high), are the most studied for their effects on the brain and immune system.

Marijuana and hemp are from the same cannabis plant family and share many of the same characteristics. However, they differ in the amount of THC and CBD each plant produces.

Marijuana contains higher amounts of THC and less CBD; hemp contains more CBD and less THC.

What are some of the health claims of CBD?

There are thousands of studies on CBD in the U.S. National Library of Medicine database. Over 2,500 of these have been conducted with grants from the National Institutes of Health.

The premise is that CBD and other cannabinoids derived from marijuana or hemp provide numerous health benefits without the complications of the psychoactive THC.

CBD has therapeutic promise in the treatment of inflammation, pain, seizures, substance abuse, mental health, HIV/Aids, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s multiple sclerosis and even cancer. Most of these studies are conducted in the lab, as it is difficult to run human experiments and get research funding using a Schedule 1 drug. But currently, there are over 300 registered clinical trials underway. And most compelling, your friends, your brother, your mother, your cousin – are providing stories that it works for them.

Despite these studies, regulators, health care providers, and consumers are still unclear about the short and long-term effects of the cannabis plant. Further clinical studies (on humans, not animals) will help clarify the potential (or not) of this cannabis compound.

How does CBD work?

Cannabinoids (CBD, THC, and many others) activate receptors in the endocannabinoid system.  These receptors are a bridge between our body and our mind. Not only do they regulate inflammation, but they also a major role in pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, coordination, awareness of time, appetite, pain and taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight.  The major cannabinoid receptors are CB1 and CB2, and they are located on cells throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells.

To illustrate how the endocannabinoid system works, think of times you are under stress. You might lace up your running shoes, take a walk in the fresh air, or hit the gym to relax. Exercise often induces a change in mental attitude –a feeling of happiness, inner harmony or boundless energy. This is like the feeling of rejuvenation you get after exercise.  The underlying reason for this de-stressing relief is that exercise activates the endocannabinoid system. Your body, after exercise, feels more balanced. The same is said to apply after taking CBD.

How big is the market for CBD?

Betting on the continued evolvement of the industry, particularly the support for the legalization of cannabis in the U.S., investment in marijuana and hemp has skyrocketed. Constellation Brands has invested $4 billion in Canopy Growth Corporation, Molson Coors has teamed up with The Hydropothecary Corporation to produce non-alcoholic, infused beverages, Heineken’s Lagunitas craft-brewing has launched Hi-Fi Hops, a sparkling water infused with THC and/or CBD, and even Coca-Colais closely watching the market.

And according to Marijuana Business Daily, Marijuana companies across the globe are going public and scaling up to meet demand. The industry is on track to raise a record $8 billion by the end of 2018, up from 3.5 billion in 2017.

According to industry estimates, the market for CBD will show continued growth through 2022, surpassing $1.8 in sales.

So, should you buy CBD?

The science is promising, but there are no standardized production practices. For example, when you drink a bottle of beer you know how much alcohol you are ingesting. There are no standards for CBD either in the product or set standards for how it is made. Also, no company that sells CBD products can make any health claims. You need to do your research to find a reputable supplier and the best quality before purchasing CBD products. I am going to give it a try for my arthritis.

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicines, in their report The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids concludes:

This is a pivotal time in the world of cannabis policy and research. Shifting public sentiment, conflicting and impeded scientific research, and legislative battles have fueled the debate about what, if any, harms or benefits can be attributed to the use of cannabis or its derivatives. This report … puts forth recommendations to help advance the research field and better inform public health decisions.

CO2: The Greatest Fertilizer of All

wildflower meadow in front of farm

The more CO2 that is available to a plant, the more CO2 it ‘inhales!’ The more CO2 it inhales, the faster the rate of photosynthesis and the greater rate of growth. Additionally, more carbon dioxide provides plants a stronger immune system to protect against disease and drought.

CO2 helps plants increase yield.

“We realize that increases in CO2 concentrations and adaptive management can provide significant mitigation of the negative effects of climate change.” -Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. Craig D. Idso, author of Climate Change: The Facts 2017 and Founder of CO2 Science has closely reviewed the COfertilization effect on agriculture. He has examined a database of over 5,500 studies that include 950 plants that demonstrate how COenrichment increases photosynthesis and yield. The COin greenhouses was amplified from 300 to 600, and in some cases to 900ppm. He found that the large-scale staple food and animal crops  (soybeans, wheat, and corn)also react well to more COin the atmosphere.

Large-scale agricultural crops respond well to CO2 enrichment. In the studies led by Craig Idso, the yield of corn increased by 27%, wheat by 37%, and soybeans by 50%.


However, it is one thing to enrich the air in a greenhouse, but how does this work with crops in practical field applications?

Dr. Rob Norton, formerly Director of the International Plant Nutrition Institute, now retired as a consultant, Norton Agronomic P/L from Australia and New Zealand, has completed several studies to understand the CO2 effect on wheat. He used FACE (Free Air Carbon Dioxide) which is the ability to determine the effect of elevated CO2 on a specific crop. For example, on the same field with the same water, sunlight and fertilizer, he had two sets of crops: one had enriched air of a higher CO2 level of 550 ppm, pumped through sprinkler-like devices every few seconds, and the other wheat crop relied just on the CO2 found in the air at the time of 385 ppm. He found that the wheat grain yield increased by 50%. His research also showed that the nutrients within a plant decreased as the yield increased. (Check out our post on how minerals get diluted as the plants grow bigger with CO2 fertilization.)

CO2 helps plants cope with drought stress.

Plants have leaf stomatal pores that allow them to “inhale” carbon dioxide and release water vapor – the process of transpiration. The more CO2 they have, the fewer pores they create, the less water vapor they release. The plants are essentially storing water and energy in their leaves. Just like humans, when plants are hydrated they grow stronger and stay healthier. This is particularly true for C4 plants such as sugarcane, sorghum, and corn.

Nature Magazine published a report by Daniel Taub, Chair of Biology at Southwestern University, which examined the Photosynthetic assimilation of CO2 to the metabolism of plants. He also completed FACE experiments and compared photosynthesis between CO2 of 385 ppm to an elevated CO2 of 475 ppm – 600 ppm. He found that in the higher CO2 environment plants required less water. This has an added benefit of less run-off which keeps the soil moist over a longer period of time.

Across a variety of FACE experiments, growth under elevated CO2 decreases stomatal conductance of water by an average of 22%…. Under elevated CO2 most plant species show higher rates of photosynthesis, increased growth, decreased water use and lowered tissue concentrations of nitrogen and protein.” (Daniel Taub, Southwestern University)

The more CO2 plants absorb, the greater the rate of photosynthesis.
Image: view from a Super Cub in the Pennsylvania countryside.

Is the Earth turning greener?

Australian scientist, Randall Donohue and a group of researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization looked at the relationship between annual rainfall, rising CO2 and the greening of the earth. Through satellite measurements between 1982 – 2010, they calculated, that yes, indeed, there was a global foliage increase of 11%.

While we are frequently inundated with the consequences of excess CO2 and its relationship to climate change— what isn’t making headlines is how increased levels of CO2 can actually grow more food!

Can research utilize CO2 to increase yield even more?

As a Dirt-to-Dinner reader, by now you know that a higher crop yield on existing land is the holy grail of farming. As the world population grows and our need for sustainability increases, using innovation and technology to get the most of our existing farmland will continue to be critical. Rice is a good start as it provides at least 20% of the energy for over 50 percent of the world population.

Paul Quick, from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, is working with scientists in eight different countries from 12 universities to supercharge the photosynthesis process in rice to increase its yield by 50%. According to the IRRI, each hectare of rice (2.5 acres) in Asia produces enough food for 27 people, as 2050 approaches, that same hectare will need to feed 43 people. They are working to convert rice, which is a C3 plant, to the efficient user of CO2 and water of a C4 plant. This would produce the desired 60% increase in yield.

Is CO2 Putting Your Nutrition at Risk?

tops of wheat plant against brilliant blue sky

“Deficiencies in iron and other nutrients could make millions of people more vulnerable to diseases including malaria and pneumonia, leading to many premature deaths.” New York Times

Climate scientists are predicting that CO2 will increase to at least 550 parts per million (ppm) well beyond the current 410 ppm today. This will have both a positive and negative effect on the major agricultural crops such as wheat, rice, and soybeans that we use to feed both people and animals.

Depending on the crop, plant yield per acre will increase by 40-60%. But scientists are also discovering that the nutrition will decrease by approximately 10% (depending on the mineral or micronutrient) as the yield increases.

“With a significant portion of consumers noting that rice is a good source of vitamins and minerals, the impact of climate change on its nutritional makeup could have severely negative impacts on the category as a whole.”  (Mintel Research)

How is the effect of CO2 on crops determined?

FACE (Free Air Carbon Dioxide) experiments are the methodology used to compare crops with today’s CO2 of approximately 400ppm with an increase to 550 or 600 ppm. One crop will have enriched air, otherwise known as eCO2, pumped through sprinkler-like devices every few seconds and the other crop will rely on the CO2 currently available in the air.

Free-air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) experiments use controlled atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in the field — a more realistic representation of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Photo: David F. Karnosky

Nature published a meta-analysis of wheat, soybeans, maize, sorghum, rice, and field peas from Australia, China, Japan, and the United States. There was an overall 50% increase in yield and an approximate 10% decrease in nutrients, specifically zinc, iron, and protein.

Rob Norton, Director, IPNI Australia and New Zealand, has done several FACE studies to understand the effect of changes in water, temperature, and with eCO2 on wheat. He and his team found that the wheat grain yield increased by 50%. They also confirmed that higher yields dilute the nitrogen. Nitrogen produces protein in the plant. So when nitrogen is diluted, protein is diluted. Normally, wheat is 15.5% protein and under the enriched CO2 environment the protein percentage dropped to 13.5%.

Faster growth does not necessarily mean more zinc, iron, or protein. When grain yield is increased a ‘dilution problem’ occurs. Think of dropping a cube of sugar into a glass of water. Then add more water, the sugar becomes diluted. This is similar to what happens when plants grow due to an increase in CO2. Interestingly enough, the chart below shows that this phenomenon occurred even during the Green Revolution when farmers adopted fertilizer and high-yielding plants.The opposite effect can also occur. If you evaporate the sugar water, you have a sugar concentrate. The same is true with a reduction in yield. While there would not be the quantity of grains, oilseeds, or rice, the nutritional quality would increase.

It is not just CO2 which affects the nutrient concentration, it can be the plant breed, or even the amount of fertilizer used, which can also increase the yield.

Some fruits and vegetables are also slightly at risk from CO2 increases.

A group of scientists from Germany, Australia, and China also looked at a meta-analysis consisting of 57 observations – primarily focusing on lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes.  They discovered that enriched CO2 increased concentrations of fructose, glucose, antioxidant capacity, total phenols, total flavonoids, ascorbic acid, and calcium but decreased protein, nitrate, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

Will this decline in nutrients affect your diet?

If you are reading this, you probably have enough of a varied diet that you are able to get your nutrients through the 2000 or so daily calories you consume. In addition, while there could be a drop in crop nutrition, it is not significant enough to make you run to the vitamin store.  However, if rice is 1/4th of your diet, then this is an issue because this means a diversified diet is not available to you. As you can see below, one cup of rice or one slice of bread is not a significant source of protein, iron, or zinc.

Percentage of RDA 1 cup of Rice 1 slice of Bread
Protein 8% 7%
Zinc 5% 3%
Iron 11% 4%

How can we adapt food nutrients to an increase in CO2?

Now that it is becoming better understood how CO2 affects plants, researchers are studying how plant genetics can help them adapt. Plant biotechnology can enhance photosynthesis with a range of temperature, water, and CO2 so we can adapt to a higher carbon world. Biofortified crops will continue to be important for those who heavily depend on wheat and rice as a large portion of their diet.

“A fresh approach will be needed using the rapidly advancing capabilities in functional genomics, genetic transformation, and synthetic biology targeting traits that will provide cultivars able to exploit what was – in evolutionary terms – scarce atmospheric carbon.”  S. Seneweera, University of Southern Queensland, Australia and R.M. Norton, Director, IPNI Australia, and New Zealand.

FAO Reports an Increase in Hungry People Around the World

women mixing grains in large bowl - Africa

In its 2018 report, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports an increase in the number of hungry people around the world. After years of steady improvement in reducing hunger, the number of people facing chronic food deprivation in 2017 is nearly 821 million, up from 804 million the year before.

What is the definition of hunger? According to author Robert Paarlberg, in his book Food Politics, What Everyone Needs to Know, hunger is defined as “those that are living on less than $1 a day, with a daily energy intake below 2,200 calories or a diet lacking in essential diversity. ” A bowl of rice or corn, for example, may be heavy on calories but lacks essential nutrients.

Hunger results in malnutrition which is a deficiency in macro and/or micro ingredients needed to maintain healthy tissues and organ function. Malnutrition results in a weak immune system more susceptible to disease.

Hunger in Sudan. WorldVision.org /Stephanie Glinski

Malnutrition can also be synonymous with obesity, which is the consumption of overeating foods without nutrients. For many people around the world, foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat can be cheaper and more readily available than fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, and other nutrient-dense foods. According to the FAO report, childhood overweight and obesity rates are rising in most regions and adult obesity is increasing in all regions.

Chronic malnourishment is widespread, but there are regions of vulnerability. Sub-Saharan, Eastern, and Middle Africa have more than 20% of undernourished people.  While not as severe, Southern and Central Asia hover around 15%. Even the sunny Caribbean doesn’t escape with 16.5% undernourishment.

What is the cause of hunger?

FAO pointed out that there are three major forces that contribute to chronic hunger:

Weather and climate. Climate-related events have consequences of food safety and availability. In fact, the FAO reports that from 1990-2016, the number of droughts, floods and storms has averaged to 213 per year. Those countries with high exposure to climate extremes have a higher malnourished population. Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, for example, not only have been experiencing lower rainfall but also fewer days of rain.

In some cases, hunger can be a direct result of a specific event, like a tsunami or hurricane. As a result, international food aid comes from a collaboration of the FAO, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other NGOs until the crisis is over.

Of the extreme climate-related disasters, drought is the most destructive for crops and livestock.

Global Conflict. Wars and civil upheavals are a double whammy for food security. Political uncertainty and terrorism force mass immigration toward the developed world. The endless stream of images on television from Syria, North Africa, and other global trouble spots tell the story vividly.

Conflict events in Africa, 1997–2015. The final boundary between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan has not yet been determined. SOURCE: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and FAO 2017 Report of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

Economics. People go hungry when fundamental economic principles are abandoned.  For example, the people of Venezuela have suffered from poor government choices. Socialism-gone-awry has triggered rampant food insecurity, refugees, and a collapsed country.

Venezuelan migrants fleeing economic meltdown at home. Source: The Times, UK

There are more mouths to feed today than yesterday…

As the population increases, so will the number of hungry people. Let’s look at 2035—just 17 years away. We will have 1.1 billion more people to feed. It is no surprise that 51% of the population growth will be in India, China, Europe, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In India alone, 339 million people currently live below the poverty line. That is more than all the population in the United States! If the percentage stays the same at 10.9%, in 2035 there will be 100 million more people facing starvation.

“Access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food must be framed as a human right, with priority given to the most vulnerable. Policies must pay special attention to the food security and nutrition of children under five, school-age children, adolescent girls, and women in order to halt the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. A shift is needed towards nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems that provide safe and high-quality food, promoting healthy diets for all.” (FAO)