In South Dakota, agriculture production is big business. As an industry, agriculture has a $32.5 billion economic impact annually and employs over one-third of all workers in the state through ag and allied industries. Crop production is an essential element to both the industry and the South Dakota economy. However, projected increases in temperature and rainfall could significantly threaten crop yields by as early as 2030. Sustainable practices must be implemented to ensure minimal economic impacts.
That’s why the National Science Foundation has tapped South Dakota State University to serve as the lead institution for a new collaborative research partnership—the Center for Climate-Conscious Agricultural Technologies (CCAT).
Researchers from SDSU will use a four-year, $4 million grant to work with colleagues from North Dakota State University, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Sitting Bull College to stimulate multidisciplinary research in pursuit of sustainable agriculture technologies.
"As evident from EPSCoR's impact, investing in research infrastructure is a powerful catalyst for strengthening our nation's security, competitiveness, and fostering groundbreaking scientific advancements," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "I'm thrilled to announce this year's EPSCoR Track-2 awards, which will strengthen community and regional efforts to understand the impacts of a changing climate and enhance the resilience of disproportionately affected communities. By addressing these critical challenges, and engaging with communities impacted by climate change, we have the potential to advance innovation and promote economic stability and recovery in EPSCoR jurisdictions and beyond."
The center will focus on the development of microbial fertilizers—an alternative to expensive and environmentally harmful synthetic fertilizers—while addressing the challenges of crop nutrient management in both North and South Dakota.
"We will focus on how using soil can play a critical role in reducing the effects of climate change and supporting ecosystems," said Srinivas Janaswamy, associate professor in SDSU's Department of Dairy and Food Science and the primary investigator for the grant. "Climate-friendly and sustainable crop nutrition solutions are required to boost rural farms' economic and environmental stewardship."
Synthetic fertilizers—specifically nitrogen fertilizers—were instrumental in transforming the world's global food supply during the second half of the 20th century, allowing for large-scale farming operations and increased crop yields. While the widespread use of these fertilizers had clear benefits, it wasn't until years later that scientists began to learn the negative human and environmental impact of synthetic fertilizers.
Today, researchers know that synthetic fertilizers have high production costs, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, pollute the various lakes, rivers and streams, and have adverse socio-economic impacts. Further, researchers have found the continued use of these fertilizers is not sustainable.
"The continuous use of chemical fertilizers to increase food production is unsustainable as they consume nearly 1% of the world's energy and contribute to 3-5% of greenhouse gas production," Janaswamy explained.
Some types of fertilizers are still a viable solution, which is why Janaswamy and his team of researchers plan to develop a microbial biofertilizer to be used in crop production with a particular focus on corn, the prevailing crop in South Dakota.
"Microbial biofertilizers offer an easily adoptable alternative to synthetic fertilizers," Janaswamy said.
The research team will source the needed materials from the roots of corn and other widely farmed crops in South Dakota. Novel technology will then be used to isolate the microbes with nitrogen-fixing, carbon-fixing and phosphorous-solubilizing capabilities. The resulting strains from this process—which the research team refers to as a consortium of microbes—will serve as the fertilizer.
"With this center, we aim to develop sustainable microbial fertilizers, foster interdisciplinary collaborations, highlight soil's role in mitigating climate change, educate farmers and Native American communities, and mentor future scientists and researchers," said Prasoon Diwakar, assistant professor at South Dakota Mines and a co-PI on the project. "It’s an opportunity for exploring, envisioning, and educating through innovation."
Beads, from locally sourced biopolymers, will encapsulate the microbial fertilizer to give it a "metabolic and competitive advantage" when added to the soil.
"Using environmentally friendly beads to encapsulate the microbes is really the novelty here," Janaswamy noted. "The ability to use locally derived biopolymers for the beads will build the rural circular economy engines."
The research team will collaborate with farmers from rural communities and crop producers on Native American reservations to understand their needs and preferences. This collaborative process will hopefully lead to widespread implementation and, subsequently, will increase profitability.
"The project will build a thriving team that will contribute to a continuum of climate-friendly solutions for crop nutrition, develop a well-equipped, future-ready workforce, and positively impact the socio-economic growth of the rural Dakotas," Janaswamy said.
Work from the center will aid in K-12, undergraduate- and graduate-level education in South Dakota, while also providing training for careers in industry, research centers, government agencies and academia. It will also establish an education-to-workforce pipeline.
"In addition to research, we will strengthen the research and technical capabilities of early career professionals at NDSU, SDSU, South Dakota Mines, and Sitting Bull College through this proposed project," said Febina Matthew, a NDSU faculty member and a co-PI on the project.
This grant is part of a larger, $56 million NSF initiative to bolster innovative and adaptive research infrastructure across the country.
"The project arose because of team building efforts across SDSU’s colleges and expanded further thanks to seed funding from the 2D BEST EPSCoR Center and South Dakota Nutrient Research and Education Council," said Sen Subramanian, associate dean for research for SDSU's College of Natural Sciences. "The team is composed primarily of early and mid-career researchers and will lead to sustained collaborations in this research area."
The broader impacts of this research include the long-term sustainability of improved crop and vegetable yields.