RALEIGH – With global population swelling and farm acreage shrinking, agriculture faces enormous challenges to feed and clothe the human race in coming decades.
Increasingly, the answers to those challenges will be found in laboratories. And NC State University aims to revolutionize modern agriculture for both North Carolina and the world with its Plant Sciences Initiative.
On March 15, North Carolina voters will decide on a $2 billion bond package that includes $85 million for a Plant Sciences Building that will be crucial to the effort. State officials emphasize that the bonds will not lead to a tax increase.
The building planned for State’s Centennial Campus is part of a broad effort to build on synergies with ag science companies in Research Triangle Park – where Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science and BASF already have sizable operations – and further fuel North Carolina’s $80 billion agriculture industry.
The bond package also includes $94 million for a new NC Department of Agriculture lab that will test everything from animal samples to food and drugs, pesticides and motor fuels, for a total investment of $179 million in agricultural research.
“This is a huge agricultural shot in the arm for this state,” said Dr. Travis Burke, the interim associate dean of NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
NC State is already internationally renowned for its plant-breeding program. In the Plant Sciences complex, university officials envision the most advanced plant-science labs not in the state, but in the world. Think of it as Gregor Mendel on steroids.
“It will be transformational for the students,” said Dr. Marshall Stewart of CALS. “We believe it will be transformational for the economy.”
NC State officials point to findings that every $1 spent on agricultural research turns into $19.90 in economic benefits to the state. They note that 84% of the jobs in U.S. agriculture over the next 25 years are projected to be in plant sciences.1
The $180 million Plant Sciences Initiative goes well beyond labs and a 30,000 square-foot greenhouse. The plan includes leasable space for corporate labs and startup companies, instruction for students and dissemination to farmers through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service.2
“It’s not enough to have knowledge,” said Stewart. “You’ve got to get that knowledge out.”
While North Carolina farmers will undoubtedly benefit, the challenges are indeed global.
With world population projected to grow from 6-1/2 billion to 9 billion people over the next 35 years, NC State scientists say they must increase crop yields, diversify nutrients, ensure sustainability and extend growing seasons.
“We’re going to have to increase agricultural productivity by 75 percent – on less land,” said NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson, a plant scientist himself. “How are we going to do that? We’re going to have to use every tool we have available to us, and we’re going to have to use the highest level of technology to make sure we can remain productive.
“And NC State is going to lead that effort.”3