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Meet the Experts: Horticulture Matters for Food Security, Here’s Why

By Fred Davies

Meet Fred Davies, a new Jefferson Science Fellow with USAID. While at USAID this year, Fred will support the Feed the Future initiative’s work to scale up promising technologies that help smallholder farmers improve global food security. We talked with Fred to learn more about how science can help us feed the future.

Tell us a little about your research and academic interests.

I’m currently a Regents Professor at Texas A&M University in the Department of Horticultural Sciences. I thoroughly enjoy teaching, research and working with the horticultural industries.

Our research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NASA, National Science Foundation, Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Fulbright, and other foundations and industries, including:

  • Plant responses to environmental and biotic stress
  • Interactions of plant stress and integrated pest management systems
  • Growing plants in low atmospheric pressure (hypobaric), controlled environments (NASA)
  • Utilizing mycorrhizal (beneficial fungi) to enhance the ability of plants to better withstand drought and nutrient stress
  • Low input agriculture, sustainable systems utilizing mycorrhizal fungi as biofertilizers
  • Ornamental horticulture production (nursery and greenhouse crops)
  • Plant propagation and tissue culture propagation systems
  • Alternative nursery production systems

Horticulture is a translational science, bridging many areas such as plant biology, engineering, production systems, human nutrition, entrepreneurship, and economic opportunities for small and medium-sized landholders. In fact, horticulture as specialty crops is 50 percent of the farm-gate value of all U.S. crops and a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide.

Growing high-value horticultural crops creates jobs and economic opportunity for rural and urban communities, particularly women. For example in Ghana, women dominate the tomato industry, from production to marketing.

What motivated you to work on these issues?

I never considered agriculture as a career when I was younger.

But then, when I was a young college graduate, I backpacked and traveled the world for a year with a close friend who was a horticulturist. Our travels through Mexico, Central and South America, and Asia began as entertainment but eventually focused on agriculture and horticultural production of fruits, vegetables, flowering plants and tea.

During my travels, I observed horticulture worldwide and the export opportunities it offered as niche, high-value crops. I gained a real appreciation and passion for international agriculture and horticulture and the opportunities they provided, and when I returned, I got degrees in horticulture.

While opportunities abound, there are also significant challenges to global agriculture and horticulture in regard to globalization, marketing, labor, environmental issues, sustainable systems, urban encroachment, energy, water usage, consolidation, and maintaining the viability and profit margins of agribusinesses.

I’ve been fortunate to have been a Guggenheim Fellow and Senior Fulbright Fellow to Peru, Mexico and Indonesia, teaching, conducting research, and interacting with horticulturalists. Throughout my experiences, I’ve worked to understand local production systems and see what new technologies can be adapted, from using mycorrhizal fungi as biofertilizers in potato production in the highlands of Peru to herbaceous grafting of vegetable crops in Ghana and Nigeria as integrated pest management to enhance disease resistance and plant vigor and reduce chemical usage.

You did some interesting research for NASA a couple years ago on plant growth. Could you tell us a little more about that and some of the ramifications it could have for feeding the future here on Earth?

Our NASA research on growing plants in low-pressure, controlled environments for long-term space habitation has spin offs for growing plants in controlled environments on this planet.

Given the challenge we’re facing of feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050, we really need to think outside the box on how we do agriculture and horticulture. It’s estimated that food production will need to increase 70 percent to meet growing demand, all with less land and water. The numbers just don’t add up for how we’re going to realistically meet the increased demand for food.

More and more agriculture, including in the developing world, is being done under protected culture, in other words growing plants in controlled environments to protect them from things like variable temperatures and excessive rainfall. Examples include high-hoop plastic greenhouses and herbaceous grafting of vegetable crops that have greater yield and disease resistance and use fewer chemicals.

Crops can also be grown without soil and with more efficient use of fertilizer, water and other inputs. Urban encroachment (loss of valuable farmland) is a huge international problem. One alternative is growing plants vertically under protected culture in more confined spaces.

You’ve also done research on saline and drought tolerance in plants. How does this research apply to food security in our world both today and in the future?  

Food, human health, economic opportunity, political stability, and water—including quantity, quality, and water rights—are all interconnected.

Many believe that high food prices caused by drought, higher energy costs, and especially increasing demand was a stressor during the lead up to the Arab Spring. In the future, we’re going to have to produce crops more efficiently with less water, fertilizer and chemical inputs.

The horticulture industry is adapting our collaborative research using beneficial soil microorganisms (mycorrhizal fungi) to grow containerized plants. This has allowed growers to meet the challenges I mentioned above and produce and market  higher quality, stress-resistant plants, all while using fewer inputs. This has direct application to crop production systems in the developing world, especially given increasing climate variability and the environmental and economic costs of, as well as reduced access to, inputs such as water and fertilizer.  

What’s one thing you wish more people knew or understood about global food security and nutrition?

One in five Americans is food insecure and it’s much worse in the developing world. Tackling the colossal problem of feeding the world can be the “sputnik” catalyst for innovation and change in the 21st century—not to mention doing it with limited resources and utilizing environmentally and economically sustainable systems. What an awesome challenge for a young people today to devote their careers to helping solve!

As an example of how critical of an issue food security is, consider Indonesia—the third largest democracy, largest Muslim country, and fourth largest user of Facebook. It faces significant challenges to food security: the country imports much of its food, one in three children suffers from stunting, and there are high food losses from farm to fork.

However, there are also great opportunities. Agriculture accounts for nearly 40 percent of employment in Indonesia, and more efficient supply chains—with standard operational procedures and improved agricultural practices—could reduce crop losses, especially in rice and tomatoes.

An organized, integrated land-grant university system of research, teaching and extension delivery, much like we have in the United States, adapted to the local cultural and needs could benefit Indonesian agriculture—and agriculture in many other parts of the world for that matter.

Inadequate extension (that is, information delivery) systems handicap the developing world. Technologies aren’t reaching enough smallholder farmers. The scaling work that Feed the Future has been undertaking is highly applicable to these problems.

As USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah has said, some of the greatest leaps in human progress have come not just from new technologies, but by applying those technologies locally. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this mission at USAID.

Learn more about which value chains Feed the Future invests in, including horticulture. 

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