In 2022, research trends that are directly relevant to the specialty crops industry will continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While failure to pass “Build Back Better” legislation means that some of the anticipated research and pilot projects on climate-smart, carbon-sequestering agriculture will not receive a significant federal investment, three research trends are coming to the forefront: diversification and de-risking of food systems; focus on technologies to reduce post-harvest food loss and waste; and integrated pest and pollinator management (IPPM).
Global vertically integrated food systems have been long held up as crowning achievements of the transition to the postindustrial age. The pandemic exposed previously considered, but unaddressed, vulnerabilities of this model. At the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit, held in September, de-risking was highlighted as one of the must-haves for modern agriculture. As the industry rethinks the global vertically integrated model, departing from it will require discoveries in biology, physics and economics. Look for discoveries in optimizing technologies, scale-up and energy use efficiency of indoor crop production, as well as new varieties and new crops capable of growing in geographies where specialty crop production is currently minimal. Economic models of what post-pandemic food systems could be will continue to emerge.
Research focus on reducing postharvest loss and waste will be fueled by a continued rise in food prices, as well as a growing realization that lost or wasted food burdens an already stressed supply chain, negatively impacts the bottom line, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. There is already exciting research on novel biopolymers for extending shelf life of high-value commodities, and more research is on the way on reducing the burden of plant diseases that make fruits and vegetables more vulnerable to postharvest decay. Optimization of varietal selection, postharvest management of ethylene and carbon dioxide through smart packaging and next-generation storage, and work on shortening the supply chain will continue to advance the goal of reducing food loss and waste. Consumer interest in “upcycled” foods will also open new options for extracting nutrients, pigments, protein and other bio-based products from the industry’s byproducts: vegetative residue, fruit pits and peels.
Integrated pest management (IPM), a practice based on judicious use of pesticides first developed in the 1950s, has been updated and rebranded with another ‘P’ for “pollinator.” Now, IPPM is coming back to the forefront of the scientific mainstream. The resurgence in interest is fueled by the mainstreaming of regenerative agriculture (which relies on a broad toolkit of proactive solutions to simultaneously manage pests, weeds and soil carbon), the fruit and nut industries’ reliance on pollinators, and consumer and retailer focus on pollinator health. Originally, many producers walked away from IPM because of its labor-intensity and marginal effectiveness of some of the practices. Cutting-edge research on new chemistries and biologics — combined with the use of artificial intelligence and modern sensors to replace scouting and economic analysis of feasibility of currently uncommon crop rotations — all will enable the expansion of IPPM.