Fourth Annual Food Security Symposium

R&D to Avoid a World Food Crisis

A distinguished and dynamic line-up of speakers and nearly 100 attendees interested in new technologies for meeting increased agricultural demand gathered for the Fourth Annual International Food Security Symposium on the University of Illinois campus April 30 – May 1, 2018.

This year’s event encouraged presenters and attendees to share their visions for avoiding a world food crisis with a focus on research and development strategies within germplasm, abiotic and biotic stresses, and photosynthesis, and how to best recruit and train the next generation of plant breeders.

The symposium also celebrated the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) longstanding partnership with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in The Philippines; several IRRI representatives were in attendance.

College of ACES Dean Kimberlee Kidwell opened the symposium by encouraging the attendees to make connections among each other.

“You never know what transformational opportunities can come out of events like these,” Kidwell noted after summarizing a sequence of events that led to the College of ACES and IRRI building a partnership that includes collaborative research and a fellowship program.

Keynote by IRRI Director Emeritus and Illinois alumnus Robert Zeigler

Dr. Robert Zeigler, Director General Emeritus, IRRI, gave an inspiring and reflective lunchtime keynote address on how accessing germplasm can address the challenges posed by global climate change.

“During my time at IRRI we went from the sequencing of one genome being front page news to the sequencing of 3,000 genomes. But we need to remember what this work can mean for practical uses. This is exciting work for those of us who enjoy it, but it is much harder to use these resources to relate variation in genetics to variation in plant performance. And it takes global coordination to do this,” he said.

To the current and future plant breeders in the audience, he said, “I commend you for being in agricultural sciences. We are still so early on in understanding the manipulation of our crops. You have so much to look forward to that I am jealous. One thing I will tell you about this line of work and having a career like the one I had at IRRI is that when you go to bed at night you will not worry about wasting your life.”

Zeigler was also complimentary of and thankful for his time at Illinois.

“I am still benefiting from what I learned here [at Illinois] 50 years ago. There are so many opportunities here; I don’t think any university in the world exceeds the capacity here.”

Summary of Symposium

A summary of the symposium sessions – on germplasm, education, abiotic and biotic stresses, and photosynthesis, is provided below. Presentations will possibly be published on the event website at a later date.

Session 1 focused on mining germplasm banks efficiently and effectively.

Dr. Erik Sacks, associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences and conference organizer opened the session by noting “Germplasm is the basis of all we do in crop improvement.”

Dr. Colin KhouryNational Laboratory for Genetic Resources PreservationUSDA/CIAT, stressed the need for crop diversity. “Genetic diversity in crops is valuable, and we have lost diversity. There is a huge movement towards a global standard diet,” he said. His work on this topic is published here.

Dr. Denise E. Costich, Maize Germplasm Collection, Head, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) emphasized that need for the global community to have access to all the international germplasm banks. CIMMIT has the world’s largest genetic collection of maize and wheat, but other collections in China, Mexico, and Russia are not available to all. She noted that any research institution can order seed online at:​.

“The use of genetic resources found in international germplasm banks for crop improvement is about to accelerate very quickly. It will take a ‘village’ of different researchers to do this work, and there is lots of opportunity for all kinds of talents and interests,” Costich said.

Dr. J. Damien Platten, Scientist – Genomics Applications, IRRI, discussed harvesting the genetic diversity of rice.

“Genetic gain requires constant recycling of the best lines of parents. The focus should be on quality not quantity,” he said.

Dr. Ray Ming, Professor, Department of Plant Biology at Illinois, used papaya to discuss the engineering of true breeding hermaphrodite varieties, which is underway and will eliminate planting multiple seedlings.

“The advancement of genomic technologies, artificial intelligence, and machine learning will result in more efficient food production to meet the needs of a growing world population,” he said.

Dr. Jauhar Ali, Project Leader and Regional Coordinator- Green Super Rice (GSR) Project, IRRI, presented on genomic assisted breeding of climate-smart rice.

“IRRI has already released five hybrids for commercial use,” he said. He discussed – in detail – IRRI’s ongoing work on dozens more promising parental lines with multiple stress tolerances.

Session 2 focused on education and training the next generation of scientists.

Dr. Peter Brothers, Head, IRRI Education, discussed the success of the Lee Foundation Rice Research Fellowship program between the College of ACES and IRRI. He also offered several takeaways on how to best train the scientists of the future.

“Wherever we go with technology, one to one and face to face mentor/mentee relationships should not go away,” he urged. He said mentors should be explicit when helping their mentees craft careers and should always encourage globalization and moving from country to country in the early years of a career. He specifically encouraged young people to gain experience in China, India, South Korea, and Japan because these cultures will be more dominant in the future.

Dr. Jack Juvik, Professor, Department of Crop Sciences and Director of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center gave an overview of the Illinois crop sciences graduate program and the success of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center in producing outstanding plant breeding professionals. He noted that degrees in plant breeding are in high demand from employers; some of the Illinois graduates start at salaries of $100K. He announced a new joint degree offered by the departments of crop sciences and computer sciences. The first students (B.S) will start in Fall 2018, and he expects 20-25 new students per year.

Dr. Fred Cholick, President, Borlaug Training Foundation, talked about his foundation’s work to develop the next generation of ‘hunger fighters.”

As a young man, Cholick worked in the field and even hitchhiked through Argentina with Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize winner who is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

The Borlaug Training Foundation is a determined group of international scientists who collaborate pro bono to train and mentor early-career scientists. They develop plant scientists to improve crops around the world. He presented this video on the Bourlaug Graining program:

Cholick said it is imperative to take science to the field and bridge the gap between academics and real world experiences.

Dr. Rita Mumm, Professor Emeritus and founder of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center noted the shortage of plant breeders and also that they no longer just come from “the farm.”

“We have to reach out to young people early to show them there are good careers in plant breeding, seed science, and agronomy,” she urged.

Session 3 focused on abiotic and biotic stresses.

Dr. Buyung HadiIRRI Representative to Cambodia, Senior Scientist in Entomology, began his presentation by asking “Can we produce enough food without destroying the ecosystem we rely on?” He then outlined his group’s study on vegetable-based ecological engineering that starts with the farmer.

“This is about capacity building, innovation, and adoption but also about bringing back dignity in farming,” he said after giving an example of low adaption when farmers are not first consulted first on what they want to plant.

Dr. Andrew Margenot, Assistant Professor, Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois, challenged the audience to think differently about soil carbon and to place more emphasis on mitigating soil fluxes.

“Soil is the only resource available to smallholder farmers,” he noted.

Dr. Richard Sikora, Professor Emeritus, University of Bonn, also an Illinois alumnus, discussed the impact of soil borne pests and diseases, specifically in Southern Africa. He is working on an open-access book that will not include ongoing research but instead will include proven techniques that can be given to farmers immediately.

Dr. Brian DiersProfessor, Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois, talked about his group’s ongoing work to improve resistance to soybean cyst nematode, which affects 80 percent of fields in Illinois and is found in all counties. Lots of work is still to be done, he said, “Some sources of resistance have been developed but they don’t have the highest yields.”

Session 4 focused on photosynthesis.

Dr. Johannes (Wanne) KromdijkPostdoctoral Research Associate, from Dr. Steve Long’s Photosynthesis Lab at Illinois, discussed using photoprotection for new crop improvement as part of the Realizing Increased Photosythetic Efficiencyproject, based at Illinois, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Xin-Guang ZhuShanghai Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology, presented on a molecular design for higher yielding rice as part of his work with the C4 Rice consortium with IRRI.

Dr. Lisa Ainsworth, USDA-ARS Photosynthesis Research Unit and associate professor of plant biology at Illinois wrapped up the symposium with a summary of the ongoing work at Illinois to determine crop responses to increased ozone.

The fourth annual symposium in this series was co-sponsored by the ACES Office of International Programs, the Department of Crop Sciences, and the Office of Research.