They could not be lower-profile, yet the scientists at the Department of Energy’s national laboratories have had a profound impact on agriculture.
We’re talking about an on-the-ground, game-changing impact that allows farmers and ranchers to grow more food with fewer inputs.
From self-steering tractors to mapping the genomes of plants and animals to developing the biofuels that will power everything from tractors to jet airliners, these scientists are replacing the phrase “What if” with “What works.”
These are not scientists sitting in an ivory tower noodling around with hypothetical questions. Ask John Hess, an Ashton, Idaho, farmer. Working with Hess, scientists from the Idaho National Laboratory developed the first self-steering tractor in the 1990s. At a time when most farmers had not even heard the initials GPS, Hess was tooling around his potato fields hands-free. What happened after that was a breakthrough for precision agriculture. By incorporating GPS technology, farmers could save time, fuel, fertilizer, seed and pesticides in a way that was not previously possible.
Other work at the Idaho National Laboratory in Arco, Idaho, has had just as much impact. Unmanned aerial vehicles — popularly called drones — represent another breakthrough. They too use GPS to monitor fields, but they are particularly useful for the way they can scan crops, helping farmers detect diseases and pests before they are even visible to the human eye.
Yet, without the work of the national laboratories, drones could not carry the sensors they now do. Scientists at the laboratory slimmed down the sensors’ weight from 300 pounds to 8.
In Berkeley, Calif., scientists have looked at the structure and function of plants and animals. They map their genes, helping scientists worldwide understand what makes a plant cold-hardy or resistant to drought or disease. Such technology has helped plant breeders shift hybridization into fast-forward.
Working with their counterparts in Idaho, scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., are developing the biofuels of the future that will power heavy equipment such as tractors and combines once automobiles are weaned off petroleum. Together, they are also developing feedstock that can be stored and shipped using existing facilities. By converting feedstocks into commodities, a true market can be developed, thus solving a key problem faced by the nascent biofuels industry.
This is profoundly important work. It is work that will help farmers, ranchers — and society at large — feed a growing world population, provide energy and minimize the impact on the environment.
You may never get to Arco, Idaho, or Richland, Wash., or even Berkeley, Calif., but you can be assured that the work underway there will benefit all of us.
And it already has.