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More Complicated Than Rocket Science

ARS Technician Jeff Nichols collects a water sample from the Walnut Creek watershed in Ames, Iowa.

ARS Technician Jeff Nichols collects a water sample from the Walnut Creek watershed in Ames, Iowa.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

From ensuring the sustainability of our water resources, to breeding crops tolerant to changing climactic conditions, to preparing for the increased food demands of 9 billion people by 2050, finding solutions to the biggest agricultural challenges we face will require a new level of scientific innovation, coordination and long-term planning.  As Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Associate Dean Joe Colletti recently put it, ag science is not rocket science – it’s more complicated than rocket science!

Finding solutions to these issues means first understanding them, and in many cases understanding them means collecting and analyzing data from across the country, for extended time periods, to recognize long-term trends and variability within those trends across diverse agro-ecosystems.  Shaping our science portfolio to pursue these goals, yesterday USDA announced the formation of a Long-Term Agro-ecosystem Research (LTAR) network at an event at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa.

In order to find solutions to many of the challenges confronting our agricultural system  today – including ensuring food security and environmental sustainability in the face of drought, flooding, and climate change – we need the ability to study how our agricultural systems respond over long time periods and across the country.  LTAR projects operate within a research infrastructure that is able to look at these ‘big-picture’ questions.  Coordinating research among the ten experimental watersheds and rangelands initially selected, the network will address large-scale, multi-year research, environmental management testing and technology transfer related to the nation’s agricultural ecosystems. Working as a network will facilitate the integration of data, establishment of standards, the ability to address continent-scale research questions, and a greater capacity to connect with academic institutions, private sector partners,  and farmers and ranchers, to bring the entire agriculture community together and leverage wide-ranging expertise.

Yesterday’s event kicked-off a process of working with key cooperators and stakeholders across the country to explore the next steps for the LTAR network.  We had a productive dialogue on how USDA agro-ecosystem research can best serve the needs of our diverse agricultural systems, and it marks the beginning of a process to develop a shared research strategy, and eventually bring other research locations into the network.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Land-Grant University System, which, working with USDA has helped find solutions to many of the agricultural challenges of the past.  This ‘long-term’ research system has been a great success for American agriculture and for our nation and ag science as a whole.  The LTAR network promises to support the continued ‘long-term’ success over the next 150 years, working towards the innovative solutions we need for challenges that are sometimes more complex than rocket science.

One Response to “More Complicated Than Rocket Science”

  1. Tim Gieseke says:

    I agree that agro-economic and agro-ecological issues are more complicated than rocket science, but also far less exact. The LTAR will provide much needed information and instill the notion that we can never pinpoint the solution as easily as landing on a specific crater on a neighboring planet. Much like the economy, the ecology functions in a dynamic fashion based on billions of bits of information that are created every new moment in time. Rockets science has the luxury of seeing the solution in math, prior to launch. Ecological science has the advantage that it does have a solution prior to now, but functions into the future. I believe the LTAR will make new discoveries, but we will still be humbled by the life and activities beholden in a teaspoon of healthy soil – and all the teaspoons of soil that exist in a watershed.

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