Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida.
Researchers with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are at the leading edge of using artificial intelligence to improve agricultural practices and production. Scott Angle explains the innovations happening at UF that will help Florida and other southeastern states take an increasing role in the nation’s food production. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.
Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I’m your host, Nicci Brown.
Our guest today is Scott Angle, who is UF’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leads the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Dr. Angle will explain what that entails in just a moment, but first, a little more about him.
Prior to joining UF, Dr. Angle served as the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His past experience includes leading a global center focused on helping smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia increase production and profitability. He has also served as a dean and professor.
I’m delighted to welcome you to our From Florida audience, Dr. Angle.
Dr. Scott Angle: Thanks. Glad to be here today.
Nicci Brown: The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, otherwise known as UF/IFAS, is at the center of our mission as a land-grant university. Could you give us a broad overview of IFAS, what it encompasses, its focus and its reach throughout the state?
Dr. Scott Angle: It’s a comprehensive organization. It’s one of the largest and most highly ranked organizations of its kind in the world. It probably ranks number two or three nationally and four or five globally. It’s got several missions. The most obvious one would be to assist agriculture to grow more food for a hungry planet. But it also has a strong focus on natural resources and environmental quality, sustainability, family and youth sciences — for instance, 4-H, which is the state’s largest youth organization, is also housed within IFAS. Parts of the vet school report directly through IFAS. Sea Grant also partially reports through IFAS, the School of Forestry and many others. So again, it’s quite comprehensive but it’s all of the managed resources and, to a lesser extent, unmanaged resources that would fall under the purview of IFAS.
Nicci Brown: And given that perspective, can you share with us some of the major challenges that you see in the agricultural world at the moment?
Dr. Scott Angle: Sure. The most obvious one is to feed a growing population. We don’t know quite where the population of the world is going to end up. It’s going to be somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people. We’re at, what, 7.8 billion now. But we’ve got to double food production by the year 2050. It’s not just that there will be more people on the planet, rather that the people that we do have are going to demand more food and higher quality food.
So, a large portion of the world’s population today, beans, rice, maybe a little bit of dairy in their diet, but that’s all they have. And so the first thing that happens when you’re moving out of poverty, where you’re literally hungry if you eat beans and rice all day, you probably go to bed hungry at night. The first thing you want is more food and higher quality food and so the need to double food production on this planet by 2050 is a tremendous challenge and if we don’t meet it, there’s going to be all kinds of global problems that result from hungry people and the things that arise from that.
So we’ve got to grow more food, but here’s the problem. We don’t have any more land. We’re not going to be cutting down more tropical rainforests in Brazil because of climate change issues. We’re probably going to have less land around the planet 50 years from now or 30 years from now than we will today to grow food, and we certainly are going to have less water to grow more food. That’s the main input for growing food is water.
So less land, less water, how are we going to double food production? The only way that can happen is through enhanced technology. Doubling food production on every acre of land. So whether it’s an animal species, you need to put twice the number of animals on the land or make them grow faster and more efficiently, the same thing for plants. That’s the only way we are going to meet this challenge.
Now it’s not going to happen all over the world either. There are some parts of the world that simply can’t grow more food. Australia, for example, where you’re from, as you know, it’s quite a dry continent. There’s not a lot of ability to grow more food in Australia. The same thing is true for China and India. They just don’t have enough rainfall really to double down on food production. Europe is tending to go into the organic and very sustainable approach which won’t, frankly, allow them to grow a whole lot more food. South America could grow more food, but we know that we need to put some of that land back into savannas and jungles for carbon sequestration.
So really it comes down to North America, where more food will be grown for the future and it’s not really a matter of should we do it here or somewhere else, there’s no choice. It really is Canada, the U.S., Mexico. This is where the round of doubling food production will have to happen. And even in this area, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, most of that is actually going to happen in the Southeast for a couple reasons.
If you go too far north beyond Iowa, for example, it’s just too cold and you can’t have two or three crops grown a year, which is a requirement to grow more food. Agriculture is driven by sunlight, that’s the energy of agriculture, and if you just don’t have a lot of it, you can’t do a whole lot more. And if you’re Mexico, the western part of the U.S., unfortunately they seem to be running out of water. You will read every day, not so much right now because California is having fabulous rainfall, but they are running out of water eventually, and so it’s really going to come down to the southeastern part of the U.S. that is going to have to produce a whole lot more food.
Florida is one of the major producers in this region. Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama — it’s all of our responsibilities, but Florida, because of our unique climate, the amount of water that we have in this state, our subtropical or tropical nature, we can do some things that you can’t do anywhere else in the country. So, in many, many ways, it really comes down to Florida and the states that touch Florida that have the responsibility, tremendous responsibility, for making sure the rest of the world doesn’t go hungry.
Nicci Brown: And as we’ve touched on before, the university has made artificial intelligence, the understanding of it and using it, a key component of all the disciplines here because it is a complex area. How is that happening at IFAS?
Dr. Scott Angle: Well, agriculture traditionally, and probably unfortunately, has been a little behind the technology curve compared to so many other industries. We have always relied on cheap inputs, cheap labor, good luck, good government policy, but we’re finding that it’s becoming harder and harder to count on all of those things.
For instance, our labor pool is drying up. As, for example, as the economy in Mexico improves, a lot of people want to stay home and work in their country rather than come here, which is a hard life. I think we all understand migrant labor and how difficult that is for many people. So, we have less and less labor in this country all the time. Our input costs are going up. You still need fertilizers, you still need chemicals to grow food. But the price of fertilizer, for instance, has doubled in the last six months.
So, we see that is another challenge to being able to do this. So, technology is a way forward and here’s how it has worked in the past. Kind of the first grand wave that allowed humans to grow more food was when fertilizers were discovered. That was considered the first wave of significant production increases. So initially they were organic fertilizers that were mined out of the bat guano fields of South America and some of the islands in the Caribbean. Later on, we learned how to artificially and chemically produce nitrogen particularly for crops but once we started doing that, we were able to significantly improve food production. So that made a big change.
Back in the ’30s, ’40s, really even into the ’50s, for some parts of the country, the second wave was mechanization. Up until that time, agriculture was frankly a very, very hard business. It was all hand labor, work that was just in my mind unbearable in many ways. Harvesting, picking cotton by hand, was just such an awful thing to have to do and there were so many other parts of agriculture that were very similar. So around that time, ’30s, ’40s,’ 50s, mechanization was introduced. So, we now had the tractor, which could pull equipment. We had harvesters that could mechanically harvest cotton, for example, or peanuts or wheat or soybeans. And so that took away a lot of the hand labor and that had a tremendous impact on productivity. That’s also why a lot of people started to move out of agriculture because we didn’t need nearly as many people. A 100 years ago, 40% of the population grew our food. Today it’s 2% of the population grows our food because of mechanization.
The third wave was genetics and genetic modification. It’s still a controversial area, for sure. I am a strong advocate of the need to genetically modify food because it has tremendous impact on our ability to produce that food, but that allowed us to start using fewer pesticides and to use less fertilizer and less water. It began to reduce our inputs into the agricultural systems. That was back in the ’80s and the ’90s when those technologies really began to take root in some segments of agriculture, not all.
Since then, our yield increases have been slow but steady but, frankly, not enough to keep up with the need to double food production by the year 2050. So, we are headed towards a very serious situation in the next 30 years, unless we have the next wave and we, particularly at the University of Florida, believe that that next wave of technology to be adopted into agriculture will be artificial intelligence.
Nicci Brown: Can you tell me a little bit more about how that might manifest? How will we use that intelligence?
Dr. Scott Angle: Yeah. As I began, agriculture really is behind the curve in artificial intelligence. The automotive industry, the airline industry, banking, healthcare, they’ve all been into artificial intelligence now for at least a decade and have used it widely. Agriculture has not. So, in some ways, our slowness to this technology actually creates a great opportunity for the future.
We can make tremendous progress with artificial intelligence. And a couple examples. The example here I always use would be human medicine, someone who has cancer. Currently, we treat cancer with drugs that attack the whole body and you hope that you kill the cancer without killing the person. That’s kind of the old model for cancer treatment. The new model of cancer treatment is you attack only the cancer cells itself and not the whole body.
So, it’s really very similar for agriculture. When you have a field that has weeds in it, for example, right now we go through the whole field and we spray every single square foot of that field for the weeds, even though the weeds may only occupy one-tenth of 1% of the field, so we grossly overspray our fields using our current technology. The same would be for fertilization. The entire field doesn’t need as much fertilizer as some parts. Some parts can grow well and need a lot of fertilizer, other parts are limited because maybe it’s too wet or too dry. You don’t need as much fertilizer there. So how do you limit and how do you control the fertilizers, pesticides, only to where you need it?
So, one of the fascinating technology that we’re looking at right now, and it’s pretty well-developed, is a pull-behind implement, pull behind a tractor, that has computer visualization on it that will find the weeds and only spray the weed. So, it won’t spray the cotton or the peanuts or the orange tree. It will spray the weeds that are around those plants. So, you actually use, even in our still developmental phase, you only use about 20% of the amount of pesticide that you would normally. So, what does that do? That saves the farmer a lot of money. Farming is a tough business right now. You don’t make much money and anything you can do to reduce input costs is another dollar added into your pocket. So, you save the farmer money. You reduce pesticide use by 80%, tremendous environmental impact as a result of that. And you also reduce the labor because a lot of this can actually be automated.
Some of these technologies that we’re developing have no human operator associated with them. They may be small implements, they’re actually quite a bit cheaper than tractors. Tractors now can be a quarter of a million dollars. They’re big and they’re powerful and they’re expensive. These can be things as small as a desktop that is driven autonomously, that you can just turn loose in your field and it will go up and down the rows, spraying the weeds, with no human involved in it. They’re typically electrically powered. When they run out of pesticide or when they run out of electricity, they guide themselves back to the farm shed and re-power themselves and refill the chemical that they’re using. So huge, huge benefits all the way around, and that’s becoming the future of agriculture.
I did want to give you one more example that I think is equally as important. As I said, we’re losing labor in agriculture and I don’t bemoan this. I think much of the labor done in agriculture today is very, very hard and often done by migrant labor, often by people who would rather stay in their own countries if they could and work there, and as their economies improve, that is happening. So, for several reasons, we are losing labor, particularly in Florida, and there are reports all the time of crops going unharvested because the farmer couldn’t find anyone to pick it.
We now have technologies that can actually pick strawberries, for example. Florida is the second largest strawberry grower in the United States, only behind California. We now have technology that will allow those strawberries to be picked by a machine. So, we have always had good mechanics to pick a strawberry or an apple or a peach or a Vidalia onion, it doesn’t matter what it is. We’ve had good mechanics, so this would be a claw at the end of an arm that will go out, find the strawberry, pick it and then chuck it into a bin and go on to the next strawberry. The problem has been is that strawberry ripe, is it ready to be picked? That’s easy for you and I to figure out. Look at a strawberry and it’s ripe or it’s not. Very simple decision. Or, once you have the claw that grabs that strawberry, how tight do you squeeze it? If you don’t squeeze it tightly enough, it falls out of the claw and if you squeeze it too tightly, you squish it in, it damages the strawberry.
So both of those things rely on computer visioning and the ability to analyze huge amounts of data and to make very quick decisions about how tightly to grab that strawberry. That’s where artificial intelligence will now, and just only recently, but now allow us to make those decisions on that fly. Is that strawberry ready to be picked and how tightly should you hold it in the claw. These are problems that have only been solved in the last two or three years.
The University of Florida has been the leader of a lot of this, and you’re going to see those types of things just proliferate in agriculture. So, whether it’s environmental quality improvement, lowering input costs or relieving humans of some of the backbreaking work of the really hard part of agriculture, AI is that next wave that is going to allow that to happen.
Nicci Brown: So, this strawberry picker, for example, sounds like a fascinating technology but how do you move from the lab into the field with something like that?
Dr. Scott Angle: Well, that is a good question because our scientists have, to some extent, unlimited resources, unlimited control of their environment, the fields that they test these new machines in have much of the random nature of it taken out of it. But when you get it to farmers, a real farmer’s field, that farm is random. The strawberries may not be all planted in a straight line. They may not all have been planted on the same day, the soils are different. So, there may be bumps in the field.
All of these things can impact these new machines that can be used to pick strawberries or other things.
So often, these technologies are initially developed using government funding because they’re high risk, high reward, but the risk is so high that no private company can see how this is actually going to make them any money. But once we de-risk some of that technology, we’ve proven it works, the cost may be high at that time, we don’t necessarily know if it works in a real field, that has a lot of random nature to it. That’s where it becomes essential then to find industry partners. So it could be John Deere is a big one. There are lots of startup companies and certainly we have a lot of those down in Balm, Florida, where we have a research center, that are working with our scientists there to build out that strawberry picker.
So we work with these scientists. They will bring down the costs, either through by mass production or finding ways to reduce the costs of the materials that are used for that. So they’ll reduce the cost to the point where it can then be practical at the individual farm level, and they will also make sure that it actually does what it says it can do on that farm.
So it’s important to bring down the costs and make sure that it really works in the field, but even with that, it may not be practical for an individual farmer. So strawberry farmers, for example, in Florida may own, may crop 50 acres. That would be a pretty big farm, that’s a lot of strawberries. But that’s not enough to justify the cost of an automated strawberry picker and so that begins then a whole new discussion about building a whole new business. For instance, and we’ve already called it this, the Uber of strawberry picking. So we would have a service that would own these machines that pick strawberries that would go into a farmer’s field, maybe for two weeks, pick strawberries and when they’re done, they would be called to another farmer’s field. So essentially you’d rent out the technology and the expertise that goes along with it and so it truly is the Uber of automation and we think that that’s going to be an important part of agriculture.
As I said before, tractors now cost a quarter million dollars. Some farmers can’t afford a quarter million dollars for a new tractor, but what if they only needed that tractor a month a year, they could rent it out through Uber Tractor. We see all kinds of opportunities like that. So these businesses, it begins with science, technology and discovery, but then it moves on into the private implementation and then it develops things about cost-sharing and moving equipment around Florida. There’s all kinds of new businesses that can come from what was a fairly singular discovery 10 years ago when we first started thinking about automated strawberry picking. Now we’re talking about the Uber of strawberry pickers.
Nicci Brown: Dr. Angle, can you give us more detail about some of our recent wins, so to speak?
Dr. Scott Angle: There are lots of them and they go back decades now. For instance, most of the strawberries grown in Florida were developed at the University of Florida research farm, and so the University of Florida actually gets royalties from those strawberry varieties. If you’ve been to the grocery store recently, there are now white strawberries in the grocery store. They taste just like a red strawberry but they’re white. They’re developed at our Balm research station, Southwest Florida Research and Education Center.
A couple of other really, I think, cool successes. Thirty years ago, on the west coast of Florida, oyster production had collapsed for a lot of reasons. Pollution is one of them, over-harvesting was another, diseases a third reason. But anyway, the oyster production had really not completely disappeared, but it was down about 90% from what it was in the heyday. Florida used to be a major producer, harvester of oysters. It was not at that time, just very small niche market. And Cedar Key, which is just west of us in Gainesville, it had been particularly devastated by the loss of oyster production because it really depended on oysters for its livelihood in Cedar Key, which was a lively seaport town long ago, had really just deteriorated to a couple people hanging on, not sure what the future was going to look like.
And so, working with the state government, a couple private foundations and our scientists, we found a way to repopulate much of the area around Cedar Key. Not with oysters this time but with clams. It has taken off, it is now a fabulously well-known clam production system around the world. So, people in Europe, for example, will ask for Cedar Key clams, because . . . I’m not a, I don’t eat clams, so I can’t give you a lot of detail . . . but apparently the flavor and the taste and the saltiness of them is just right and so here is a place where the industry had collapsed, the town had collapsed, most people had moved away and now, there’s businesses moving back in to Cedar Key, not to harvest oysters, but rather to harvest clams and we’re seeing clam production grow all over the East Coast.
But at the same time now, we are also reintroducing oysters — oysters that might be resistant to some of the diseases. There were two diseases, in particular, that devastated the population, so we have discovered some oysters that are resistant to these. Not completely immune, but resistant. So, we’re reintroducing those oysters so oysters may be back some day, too. They’re certainly on their way back right now.
One other really … I think this is one of the coolest things we’re doing in IFAS. I don’t know how big of an industry this is going to get, but vanilla production globally has been declining because of some diseases in the vanilla plants. Vanilla is an orchid, it can only grow in tropical regions, and it requires a tremendous amount of labor in Indonesia and Malaysia where it’s grown. Now they happen to have a lot of cheap labor, so it actually does work there. Vanilla has never been grown in the United States, mostly because there’s not many places we can grow it. Hawaii, Miami and south into the Homestead area. Maybe a couple of the Virgin Islands, Caribbean islands, South Pacific islands, U.S. territories. But we’ve never really grown vanilla. So, there’s now a vanilla shortage.
So, we have a scientist down at our Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, his name is Alan Chambers, and he is finding varieties of the orchid that produces vanilla that will grow in that region. And the advantage is that we — apparently we’re just lucky — we have bee pollination of orchid flowers, whereas in Indonesia and Malaysia, it all has to be done by hand. But we just got lucky. We’ve got the right type of insects here that they don’t have in Malaysia that will allow us not to have to hand-pollinate the orchids for the bean pod production and so he’s found varieties that grow in that area. He has found a commercial way to extract the vanilla oil out of the pods and he’s now working with chocolatiers in Miami to make sure that we are producing chocolate produced in Florida that was developed with Florida vanilla.
I’ll give you one more quick example because this is also another fun one. A lot of our breweries, whether it’s here in Gainesville or other places, they all like to have homegrown brews. So it could be sugar cane for rum or it could be hops for beer. Hops don’t grow in Florida because our day length is too long. You need very short days and you need very long days, so the further north you get, you get more of that. The further you go towards the equator, our long days and short days, are not as significantly different as they would be in a more northern climate. So we’ve always grown hops in Washington and Oregon and North Dakota and South Dakota where you’ve got dramatic differences in day length. It didn’t grow here in Florida. Yet our breweries were constantly asking for hops grown in Florida.
So, our scientists developed a technology that now allows hops to be grown in Florida and what it involves is supplemental lighting. So, hops are long vines that can grow 20 feet tall. Well, we’ll put up lighting that is 30 feet tall, the type of lights you would see on athletic fields, and we turn those on once the sun goes down, and that gives longer days and the hops grow just fine with these artificial long days and the advantage that we have here in Florida is that we can grow two crops of hops, where in Oregon, they can only grow one crop because it’s too cold.
Nicci Brown: Well, the beer-drinking public thanks you for that.
Dr. Scott Angle: Our pleasure.
Nicci Brown: Can we talk a little bit more about individual farmers and how we actually get these technologies from the lab to them because we do also hear about that tension between these huge multinational companies and then you’ve got the individual farmer, who’s trying to survive, as you said, in what is a particularly tough industry at times. So, what’s the impact there?
Dr. Scott Angle: It is a tough industry and that’s the essence of the land-grant system. The land-grant system was created during the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln to support farmers, engineers and also the military sciences at the time but mainly farmers, because farmers weren’t able to do research on their own. It’s expensive, it’s complex, it takes a lot of training and unlike Boeing aircraft company, they’ve got lots of smart people in their own R&D department, so when they need a new technology, they call up the R&D department and say, “Work on this.” They develop a new technology, they have then educators who will transfer that technology out into the factories, where it can then be used to build bigger and better airplanes.
In agriculture, we don’t have that because agriculture literally is millions and millions of farmers that, even if they’re mid-sized farmers, sometimes even large farmers, they don’t have the wherewithal to spend a lot of time and a lot of money conducting research to solve a problem. Even large-scale farmers, they’re not able to do a lot of that and so what we do in the land-grant system, and I’ve used this term here recently, we de-risk agriculture for farmers. We find things that will work for them. None of these technologies are ever perfect, but we can take 90% out of the risk so that when they do start to implement some of these technologies in their field, we will be pretty sure that it’s actually going to do what it says it’s going to do.
So, agriculture, yes, there are large multinational farms, but one of the things also to remember is that’s not quite what it seems all the time. Many of these farms, which are called corporate farms, they’re still family corporations. So this is generally a couple and their children that have incorporated to take some of that legal risk out of their system. So while it often appears to be a large multinational corporation, often it’s just a family corporation, too.
Nicci Brown: IFAS is working with several key groups in Florida to help farmers adopt climate-smart practices. Can you tell us a little bit more about this effort and how you are impacting those farmers?
Dr. Scott Angle: I think we all understand in Florida, Florida particularly, that we do have water pollution in this state. Our streams, our springs, our bays and some areas of the state are impacted and agriculture is part of that. We’re not the total cause of pollution of some of the springs, for example, but we are part of it. We have an obligation to do what we can and so we do work with a number of groups around the state to help make sure that agriculture has the least impact footprint of its operations on the environment.
So one that I love working with is called Solutions from the Land. It’s a national organization, but it really seems to have the largest hold here in Florida because we have so many environmental issues in Florida. And so they are trying to work with us to help find ways to reduce the impact of agriculture on water. So, using fewer fertilizers, using fewer pesticides, cultivating the soil in ways that will allow for less erosion, the movement of actual soil particles into water. So Solutions from the Land is working directly with us and Nature Conservancy is another group that has had a lot of interaction with IFAS. Ducks Unlimited, for example, we have very similar goals to Ducks Unlimited. We all want clean water. Ducks Unlimited wants clean water for ducks and geese. We want clean water because it’s the right thing to do.
So, we are working with these groups. They often provide funding, they often provide opportunities for us to work on some of their and with their staff and on some of their farms. Every one of them owns farms and so we can use some of their farms actually to demonstrate the technologies that our UF/IFAS scientists come up with. And that’s really important in agriculture. Scientists, or excuse me, afrmers tend to be . . . it seems like they’re all from Missouri, you’ve got to show them. They want to see it for themselves. They’ll read the papers and they’ll read the information online and that we provide them and talk to our extension agents, but they also want to be in the field and see it for themselves working. And so working with those partners, that allows us to have demonstrations in the field, we bring farmers to those facilities and we show them, “Here’s what the future looks like” and then they can go back and begin to think about it and eventually adopt that as the technologies are ripe for implementation.
Nicci Brown: What are some of the reactions that you’re seeing from the farmers?
Dr. Scott Angle: They’re grateful, number one, because . . . I’ve said this twice now, it’s tough in agriculture. Commodity prices are low, the prices that you sell your products for are low, and input prices are going up. We’re probably going to have some farmers this year who go out of business because they just can’t make that input cost/output profitability worksheet work for them anymore. And so it’s very sad and so any time we can bring them to a farm, for example, and show them, “Here’s a way to reduce your fertilizer and pesticide use by 50%, that’s 50% of the cost of those materials that we have just now reduced for them and every dollar that we save obviously is a dollar back in their pocket.
So, we can’t control commodity prices. We live in a global environment now, prices are set multi-nationally. What happens in Australia with the citrus industry, for example, will impact citrus prices here in Florida. So, we can’t do very much about that, but we can control the cost and the value of those products that we utilize to grow food in this country, and that’s where IFAS has a tremendous advantage in being able to help farmers reduce their input costs.
Nicci Brown: And you referenced the growing importance of the southeast of this nation to the future of food production. Can you talk a little bit more about Florida specifically and that tension between maintaining our environment but also meeting those challenges?
Dr. Scott Angle: There is a lot of tension right now. I am smack dab in the middle of all of this. I came, though, from the Chesapeake Bay region. I worked at the University of Maryland for a long time and I was a soil scientist who worked on water quality. Chesapeake Bay back in the ’70s and ’80s, even into the early ’90s, was quite polluted. Oyster populations were declining, clams, crabs, rockfish, a lot of the submerged aquatic grasses, grasses that live on the bottom of bodies of water had disappeared, all from pollution, and some of it was from agriculture, and so we were having, in the 1980s, we were having the same discussion. Farmers pointing their fingers at “There are just too many people in the Baltimore-D.C. region, that’s the problem.” And the people in Baltimore and D.C. pointing their fingers at the farmers, saying, “No, you guys are plowing fertilizers into your field and those fertilizers run off into the Chesapeake Bay.”
So, it was very similar to what I’m finding here in Florida now. We’re still in the finger-pointing stage in Florida, unfortunately, but I think through a lot of good dialogue, it’s going to require industry and the farming community and certainly groups like IFAS that have the technologies that can help. Government’s going to have to step in, I think the federal government, state government, local governments, foundations like The Nature Conservancy, they all came together on the Delmarva region of Maryland, which is that land east of the Chesapeake Bay, they came together and developed a plan that no one was completely happy with but everyone understood was critical if we were going to save the bay.
And today, the bay has recovered. It is much, much cleaner than it has been in the last 100 years. The farmers are still in business, they’re still growing food. The water quality is much better. So, it actually worked. So, I’m convinced that we can do that in Florida. It seems like we’re 30 years behind the curve here in Florida. I wish we had gotten on this 40 years ago. But we didn’t and so I see a path forward for Florida. It’s been done in the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie also, which has had a lot of impact from people and agriculture. They are on the path forward and Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes are much cleaner than they were just 20 years ago. So, the model is there.
Now Florida, unfortunately in some ways, this is kind of what makes Florida so fascinating, Florida is so much more diverse than any of those other environments. In Maryland, for example, agriculture was chickens and things to feed chickens. You did not have that many targets that you had to “fix” or provide better technologies for. In Florida, we have 300 crops that are over $10 million each. It’s the second largest industry in the state, but it very much pits agriculture against tourism, which is the number one industry in the state. So, the tourists are here because we have clean water, whether it’s the springs or our coastal areas, they come not just for Disney, they primarily come for the beaches, and we’ve pitted the agricultural community against the tourism industry in the state, the number one and number two industries. I don’t want to call it a battle because everyone wants an amiable solution to that, but it’s a huge issue for Florida and one that I have said over and over again, I am confident that we can solve this problem, not because I know the way forward necessarily, there are some glimmers of how we’re going to get forward, but because we don’t have any choice.
We’ve got to figure out a way for this and one of the things that I think is going to help more than anything else, where we in Florida are leading the way in artificial intelligence, particularly is going to help make this possible it’s called ecosystem services. So farmers, one of the things they do for Florida is they do cleaner water. So yes, we have some areas that pollute, but most farmers in Florida actually have cleaner water coming off their farms than the water that goes onto their farms. We, not we, they provide habitat for wildlife. they manage forests and even their crop areas are managed in such a way now so that there’s an abundance of wildlife. One of the most important ones is called carbon sequestration, so climate change. That is a result of enhanced CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Some of it came from agriculture when we originally plowed up our soils back in the 1800s. A lot of it comes from burning of fossil fuels, obviously. It can be a tractor, it can be a car. But agriculture has had a role in climate change and increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that has resulted in increases in temperature.
That’s been a big problem and I think in agriculture to some extent we have been an unrecognized, more significant contributor to climate change and what people talk about. So, We’ve been a bigger problem than most people have understood. So, we can undo it, though, so we actually become a bigger solution than most people understand, so in photosynthesis, sunlight works on chlorophyll in the plant and it takes carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it into plant material, so leaves and roots and stems and oranges. We can now manipulate the soil and manipulate the agriculture so that we can actually capture more of that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, CO2, turn it into plant material and then bury that plant material into the soil, where it then becomes part of the permanent organic matter complex of the soil.
So, it does two things. First of all, it reduces CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, has tremendous impact on climate change. But secondly, we need organic matter in soil. Without organic matter, the soil then just becomes kind of an inert rooting medium, but the soil really is a living organism. It’s organic materials, it’s bacteria, it’s fungi, it’s viruses, it’s worms, it’s nematodes. These are all the things that make soil healthy, and when you lose that organic matter, then the soil becomes “unhealthy” and that’s when diseases of roots can take hold and insects and weeds can proliferate in those soils. So you have a lot less resiliency of those soils that don’t have any organic matter in them. And so, by now using more modern technologies to grow plants and return some of that organic matter back to the soil, you can actually make the soil a whole lot healthier.
So benefits to the climate, benefits to agriculture and to the soil, and lastly, we need to pay the farmers for doing this. They shouldn’t have to do it for free. They should not be cleaning their water for free. There’s no one in Florida that we expect to clean water for free to create wildlife habitat. There are companies that are trying to sequester carbon out of the air using alternative methods. No one’s doing that for free. Yet farmers are doing that for free now. So we need to find a way to reward our farmers for doing all of these good things for everyone. The benefits of what they do, it’s 2% of the population is benefiting the other 98% of the population. So the other 98% of the population should have to pay for that. I don’t know how we’re going to do that, that’s a political question and not everyone agrees that raising the money to do that is necessarily a good idea.
But our farmers are not making enough money right now, a lot of it is out of their control. They are providing services for free that they should be paid for and so we in IFAS are . . . we’re involved in a significant effort to try to promote and ultimately find a way to monetize ecosystem services. And artificial intelligence is a way that will allow us to do that because every field is different. We can’t just have one rate for wildlife conservation, for example, because every field is different, every farm is different. So how do you, for that field, how do you calculate the impact on wildlife habitat preservation, carbon sequestration, cleaning the water? And so that’s a very difficult calculation that would have to be done tens of thousands of times over in Florida, and we just can’t do that using a pencil and a calculator, so artificial intelligence is the way forward.
Nicci Brown: Dr. Angle, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today and thank you for your leadership and to the IFAS researchers and to our farmers as well. It’s been terrific having you here.
Dr. Scott Angle: Thanks. I appreciate the opportunity.
Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I am your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you’ll join us next week.