In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Smart Agriculture
June 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 2
People everywhere rely on agriculture in one form or another – for food, animal feed, fiber, and other necessities. The summer 2022 articles describe precision indoor farming and alternative protein food systems, advances in food processing, genome editing, digitalization, sustainable and regenerative agriculture, the role of a circular economy, and the important role of policy.

Guest Editors's Note: Science and Engineering to Transform the Food and Agriculture System for the Future

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Author: Norman R. Scott and R. Paul Singh

There is no area of human activity more basic to society than a sustainable agricultural, food, and natural resource system. With projections that global population will grow to as much as 10 billion by 2050 (Pew Research Center 2022), there is increasing concern as to how this system should be transformed to feed this population sustainably.

Evolving Challenges and Progress

Serious questions need to be addressed; for example: What will constitute a healthy diet? Will natural resources and ecosystems be compromised—or even destroyed—in efforts to provide such a diet? Will the food system reduce or increase hunger and poverty? And will the system enhance or decrease equity and access to food for a healthy and productive global population? These and other critical questions challenge all who participate in the food and agriculture system (FAS), and more broadly everyone is involved at some level, from daily consumption to innovative scientific research.

As the focus on food and agriculture has heightened, numerous reports and diagrams have called for a major transformation of the FAS. Yet, as Per Pinstrup-Andersen writes in this issue, “The definitions and descriptions of food systems vary from a narrow focus on food and agricultural supply chains to inclusion of virtually all aspects of a national economy. The former is likely to miss important opportunities for improvements, while the latter basically calls for an overall economic transformation in the name of a food system transformation.” Nevertheless, we believe that figure 1 provides an informative illustration of the FAS, the complexity of this system of systems, and its drivers, activities, actors, and outcomes (CIAT 2017).

The existing FAS evolved from the domestication of plants and animals that has been traced back to 11,000–9,000 BCE (Zeder 2011). While providing safe and affordable food remains a driving force, numerous factors challenge the present and future FAS. These include impacts of the FAS on the environment, distrust in science and technology, increasing urbanization, climate change, changing food preferences, globalization, integrated value chains, energy, water, international trade and regulations, the economic viability of rural communities—and, more recently, recognition of the disruption that major events, such as a pandemic, can create for the FAS.

From its origin, a fundamental element of the FAS has been land/soil-based agricultural production. This remains largely true as soil remains a consistent factor amid advances attributed mainly to science and technology, as reported in this issue—in nanoscience and engineering, genomics (including CRISPR), sustainable and regenerative agriculture, digital agriculture, digital biology, advances in food processing, the urban-regional food-energy-water nexus, and the role of policies. However, emerging subsystems of precision indoor (controlled environment) agriculture, aquaculture, aquaponics, and alternative protein food systems are largely established in soilless facilities—and they are experiencing significant growth.

Guest Editors Note figure 1.gif
FIGURE 1 Interpretation of the international food and agriculture system and its drivers, activities, actors, and outcomes. All elements of growing, harvesting, storing, processing, distributing, consuming, and managing the food and agriculture system are encompassed in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. GHG = greenhouse gas. Source: Adapted from CIAT (https// systems).

In This Issue

The authors in this issue examine progress, possibilities, and challenges in this highly complex, adaptive system that functions across a spectrum of economics, biophysical, and sociopolitical contexts (IOM and NRC 2015). We acknowledge, though, that, notwithstanding the scope of the nine articles, this issue does not adequately address a number of FAS-related issues, such as diet and human health, energy efficiency, food loss and waste, bioenergy, social impacts, and depth of climate change effects. These and other FAS-related topics are being actively studied to ensure sustainable agriculture for people and the planet; readers are encouraged to explore resources such as IPCC (2022).

In the first article, Hongda Chen, Jason White, Antje Baeumner, and Dan Luo present a vision of scientific discovery and engineering innovation based on the understanding and control of matter at the nanometer scale to solve societal challenges facing the FAS. They highlight promising areas to ensure and improve food safety, support precision agriculture, and create value-added uses of nanobiomaterials. From the unique use of DNA as both a genetic and generic material (easily obtainable from agricultural biomass, which is renewable and degradable), to applications of nanomaterials to increase crop yields with environmental benefits, they show that nanobiomaterials have many uses.

Rodolphe Barrangou[1] (NAS) describes “a genome editing revolution” brought on by the remarkable precision of CRISPR-Cas9 technologies. The availability of affordable resources to use these technologies has resulted in a spectacular increase in the number of researchers engaged in this field worldwide. Agricultural applications of this emerging technology abound, from breeding desirable traits in crops with enhanced environmental resilience to improving starter cultures for food fermentation, such as cheese and yogurt. He emphasizes the need to “promote trust through risk mitigation and transparency” to successfully adopt genome editing in the quest for sustainable agriculture.

A.G. Kawamura, Rattan Lal, Marty Matlock, and Charles Rice note that the sustainable agriculture concept has been effective in engaging stakeholders across the agriculture supply chain in developing key performance indicators to assess greenhouse gas emissions, water quality and quantity, soil erosion, and biodiversity across the plant-animal-human nexus. Sustainable agriculture is complemented by regenerative agriculture, which focuses on initiatives to promote soil health. Together, the two represent a holistic framework to engage communities to protect and preserve soils, rebuild the capacity of degraded lands, protect water resources, and reduce food loss and waste.

Innovations in controlled environment aquaculture systems help reduce water and energy use.

An article by the CROPPS Research Community emphasizes the need for a deeper understanding of the biology of plants and their responses to a changing climate, among other factors. The vision and work of the Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS) focus on understanding the deep biology of plants to create an Internet of Living Things. The vision depends on transdisciplinary collaboration—biotechnology and synthetic biology, robotics and automation, sensing and automation, and computing—to enable a digital dialogue with plant systems.

Expanding on the role of digital technologies, John Schueller and John Reid explain that digitalization will underpin a sustainable increase in the global food supply for the increasing population. They note that the automatic guidance of equipment on farms, made possible by the availability of GPS, helped realize dramatic improvements in machine performance and subsequent advances in precision and accuracy. The authors foresee further enhancements with the increasing integration of cloud computing, electrification, connectivity technologies, and use of robotics and drones, while acknowledging that implementation of autonomous systems on the farm presents challenges that will require engineering solutions.

K.C. Ting, Michael Timmons, and Ricardo San Martin describe food and agricultural production innovations involving precision indoor farming and alternative protein food systems. Traditional greenhouses are evolving into advanced controlled environmental plant systems, including vertical farms, with computer-controlled environments, robotic handling systems, and soilless growing media. Innovations in controlled environment aquaculture systems help reduce water and energy use. In addition, plant-based alternative protein products are readily available in the marketplace, and cultured/cultivated meat products are ready for or nearing commercial availability. Scale-up and cost of production facilities, cost to consumers, and consumer acceptance remain challenges.

Josip Simunovic and Kenneth Swartzel discuss the critical role of food processing in a sustainable food supply system. Industrial processes that help preserve food are vital to reducing food losses and waste. The authors foresee flexible and mobile processing systems located closer to farms and methods that rely more on electrical technologies such as microwave processing. They also note the challenges of “getting high-quality food in sufficient quantities” to growing urban areas, especially megacities. They expect that integrated approaches to processing, distribution, preparation, and preservation will drive further advances in food process engineering.

Anu Ramaswami and Dana Boyer present eight principles for designing a sustainable circular economy at the urban-regional food-energy-water systems (FEWS) nexus using a supply chain–linked urban metabolism model. They define a sustainable circular economy “as one that advances resource circularity by achieving resource sustainability, reducing pollution, preserving/regenerating natural capital, and generating employment and broader benefits to human health and wellbeing, including social equity.” The focus is a quantitative systems framework to analyze transboundary linkages across sectors from consumption to production at the farm level to assess circularity potential of resource circularity pathways.

Wrapping up the series with an overarching perspective, Per Pinstrup-Andersen writes that a policy framework is necessary to facilitate access to knowledge and technology for potential users, including but not limited to food producers and processors, and promote evidence-based decisions among stakeholders. Past emphasis on production (e.g., in the Green Revolution) met an important need to avoid mass starvation in Asia; it is now time to address widespread micronutrient deficiencies, obesity, and negative health outcomes. Government policies should also facilitate renewable energy sources, reduce food loss and waste, enhance antimicrobial resistance, and ensure animal welfare. The author calls for “A facilitating policy framework…to fully capture the benefits from science and engineering for improved food and agriculture systems.”


The theme of this issue resulted from a perchance conversation with the managing editor of The Bridge, Cameron Fletcher, at the 2018 NAE annual meeting in Washington. That discussion led to an agreement that an issue should focus on the impressive advances in science and technology in the food and agriculture system. The Bridge last addressed agriculture and information technology in 2011[2]; the articles in this issue present achievements and advances since then, including areas of science and technology that were “not on the radar” a decade ago.

We thank all the authors and staff who contributed to this issue, as well as the experts who evaluated the manuscripts to help ensure quality and accuracy: Suresh Babu, Bruno Basso, Ranveer Chandra, Liang Dong, Alan Franzluebbers, Ben Goldstein, James Jones, Melanie Kah, Martin Kremmer, Carlos Messina, Stewart Moorehead, Raul Piedrahita, Prabhu Pingali (NAS), Pamela C. Ronald (NAS), Cristina M. Sabliov, Eric Schulze, Juming Tang, Alison Van Eenennaam, and Mark Williams.


CIAT [International Center for Tropical Agriculture]. 2017. Sustainable Food Systems. Rome.

IOM and NRC [Institute of Medicine and National Research Council]. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington: National Academies Press.

IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report. Cambridge UK and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pew Research Center. 2022. 10 projections for the global population in 2050. Washington.

Zeder MA. 2011. The origins of agriculture in the Near East. Current Anthropology 52(S4):S221–35.


[1]  Bold denotes NAE members.

[2] -Agriculture-and-Information-Technology


About the Author:Norman Scott (NAE) is professor emeritus, Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University. Paul Singh (NAE) is distinguished professor emeritus, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, University of California, Davis.