Reza Ehsani 2015-02-23 23:30:15
My personal involvement with food production started when I was a teenager, tending all kinds of row crops on our family farm. That experience taught me about the challenges involved in farming. While I was working on my PhD at the University of California, Davis, I learned about new management techniques, such as precision agriculture, and was introduced to the production of high-value crops, i.e., fruits and vegetables, rather than the row crops that I was familiar with. A healthy diet requires fruits and vegetables, but these foods are relatively expensive in the U.S. because they are laborintensive, and the cost of labor is high. Although there are many opportunities for automation, the production of fruits and vegetables is the least-mechanized area of modern agriculture. My professional involvement in food production started with developing machines and advanced equipment for reducing the production costs of tree crops. That includes improving the efficiency and productivity of mechanical harvesters for citrus fruit, as well as developing tools for optimizing production using data-driven management strategies for crop inputs. In addition to research, I have been involved in extension outreach education to transfer new knowledge in fruit production to growers. In particular, my contribution toward the goal of sustainable food production has been in detecting and managing the spread of crop diseases. The devastating effects of citrus greening disease (also known as Huanglongbing, or HLB) on citrus production in Florida is a prime example of how destructive a crop disease can be, and how a single disease can endanger an entire industry. HLB is a bacterial infection caused by Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus (CLas). The spread of HLB threatens the future of Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry. Citrus production in Florida has dropped from 240 million boxes ten years ago to 115 million boxes last year, and HLB is the major factor behind this decline. If we don’t find a treatment, and soon, many growers believe that the Florida citrus industry will simply cease to exist. To prevent the spread of a disease like HLB, early detection at the asymptomatic stage is critical. Prevention is the best way to control an epidemic. One of my areas of research involves detecting diseases that affect fruit trees, such as HLB, at early stages using imaging with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The Federal Aviation Administration will soon integrate UAVs into the U.S. airspace, and agriculture will likely be the biggest market. UAVs are an excellent tool for crop monitoring, and they could significantly reduce the crop scouting costs for growers. Most importantly, by detecting diseases at early stages, the fast spread of plant diseases could be prevented before crop loss occurs. For treating pests and diseases, my colleagues and I are focusing on physical control methods instead of chemical controls. For example, in the case of HLB, we are using thermotherapy to prolong the life of infected trees. Our prototype machine covers individual trees with a collapsible hood and then uses steam to kill the HLB bacteria. It is a safe, chemical-free technique with no ill effects on the fruit. It is also environmentally friendly. There are also opportunities to use similar techniques to enhance nutrient uptake and improve irrigation efficiency. However, research takes time and costs money. Sustainable agriculture will not be possible without supportive government policies. Agricultural development should be an international priority, and policy makers should work to promote environmentally friendly and sustainable production. Funding for agricultural research needs to be increased, and special funding should be made available for developing sustainable technologies. The factors that will limit sustainable food production in the near future are the decreasing availability of land and water for agriculture, the exponential increase in the spread of pests and diseases, and the absence of a new generation of farmers—young, well-trained, and innovative. Incentives should be created to bring that next generation into agriculture. Finally, consumers need to be better informed about how agricultural products are grown, to encourage popular support for sustainable practices. In summary, to feed the world by 2050, a lot of steps need to be taken. We must start now. ASABE Member Reza Ehsani, Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, Lake Alfred, Florida, USA; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.crec.ifas.ufl.edu. Top photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of USDA-ARS. Bottom photos by the author.
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