UF/IFAS teams to “chase big ideas”

— Special to the Harvester —

By Jack Payne
jackpayne@ufl.edu

@JackPayneIFAS

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences already ranks in the top three land-grant universities in numbers of plant breeders, cultivars developed, and cultivars licensed for commercial propagation.

We’re getting even stronger. We’ve just brought to the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead the first fruit and vegetable breeders we’ve employed there in at least a generation.

Just in time, because we need a new generation of fruits and vegetables. Crops are facing stresses that weren’t as evident 30 years ago – increased heat, sea-level rise that can lead to saltwater intrusion, migrating diseases, and a new pest arriving in Florida every month on average.

You can fight all this with more water, more nutrients, and more pesticides, all of which mean more money. But IFAS aims to save you money, time, energy, and environmental impact by breeding plants that stand up to these stresses.

Thanks in part to the tremendous support we’ve received from FFVA members, UF/IFAS has received funding to hire dozens of new research faculty. Instead of carving up this cluster of new scientists by giving each academic department a quota, we’re hiring them in teams assigned to chase a big idea.

One of the biggest ideas is what we call subtropical and tropical crop germplasm development. That’s the name we’ve put on an initiative to hire five new researchers with expertise in environmental horticulture, horticultural sciences and plant pathology with instructions to work as a team on creating new varieties for your fields and greenhouses.

A grand slam would be doing for squash, watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes or other Florida crops what we’ve done for blueberries and strawberries. That is, create cultivars that boost a crop from an enterprise to an industry.

I’m confident of a large return on this investment because the people we attract possess both expertise and drive.

Vegetable breeder Geoffrey Meru plans to use genomics to speed up the search for disease-resistant varieties of snap beans, squash, okra and other South Florida crops.

Take Geoffrey Meru, for instance. He started at TREC in June as a vegetable breeder and plans to use genomics to speed up the search for disease-resistant varieties of snap beans, squash, okra and other South Florida crops. He developed his expertise through research at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Kenya, at the University of Georgia and at Tennessee State University.

But he developed his passion for producing food as a child in Kenya. Although his dad was a university professor, they still farmed on a small scale to help cover Geoffrey’s educational expenses. Food was a way to advance his education.

And each year neighbors would show up on their land needing help. The Merus gave them food to get them through seasons in which those neighbors had little to live on while they waited for their own crops to come in. Food was a way to build community, to help friends, to alleviate suffering.

So Meru sees crop breeding as a mission as well as a vocation. He says that will drive him even harder to discover.

Talent and passion alone won’t do it. Meru needs tools. And we’re working on providing them. TREC is expanding its labs to accommodate the research of Meru and other new scientists in part with indirect cost money collected in our research grants. Indeed, Meru says, part of the attraction of coming to work at TREC was the facilities upgrade.

In the coming legislative session, we’ll be asking for the state to help us provide more equipment and facilities upgrades to TREC to power innovation there. If we could get Meru a gene gun, a microinjector, and other tools necessary for advanced gene editing, it would be possible for him to use revolutionary new techniques such as CRISPR in his work. It could take years off the time it takes to develop a new variety.

I’ll be asking for your help next year in making the case for that funding that will help IFAS help you. As always, I ask that you tell your elected officials how much public science helps you.

Also, please welcome Meru (gmeru@ufl.edu) and his fruit breeder counterpart, Alan Chambers (ac@ufl.edu) , by letting them know what your biggest challenges are so they can get to work addressing them.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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