Improving yields—globally

Planting a field research trial
Planting a field research trial

In the age of big data, size is beginning to matter less and less as some researchers now question what to do with it all. While, on one hand, genome sequences and increasingly detailed genetic maps of Earth’s major crop species have proliferated, the field research of those same crops around the world has remained fragmented at best.

And that’s a problem. It’s the genotype in the environment, after all, that is measured in bushels per acre.

But some are on to the problem and have an idea of how to fix it.

In July of this year, the journal Science published an article by Reynolds et al. titled “Improving global integration of crop research.”

In sum, this paper discusses the idea of a central “Global Crop Improvement Network.” While short of establishing a Theory of Everything, the Global Crop Improvement Network would be a central hub where scientists could collect and analyze crop research data from around the world and apply it to create new crop varieties and develop improved practices.

Behind this effort is the thought that researchers—from both the private and public sectors—are already conducting many field trials around the world. Unfortunately, the valuable data from this research is often applied no farther than the local region where the research was conducted.

So, potential production gains are languishing in the dark, dusty corridors of the unknown, simply because that information has not been shared with colleagues on the other side of the world.

In their paper, Reynolds et al. point out two main obstacles to this global ideal. First, to be useful in worldwide modeling, experiments and their data must meet a common standard. Second, the intellectual property rights and limited data sharing that are frequently enforced in for-profit pursuits can dampen the open collection and dissemination of information.

Anyone who has done any kind of crop experimentation in a field setting knows how hard it can be to work with a common standard within one’s own experiment, let alone around the world in Indonesia, Germany, Egypt, and Argentina. Reynolds et al. suggest, however, that simply increasing data sharing could improve the standardization of protocols behind global data collection, as scientists openly share their materials and methods. Perhaps conferences of research leaders from around the world could also help clarify and establish some of the most important standards for each crop under study.

To clear the intellectual property rights and competitive data concealment hurdles, Reynolds et al. suggest using “precompetitive research.” Like Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube’s commitment in recent months to work together to develop technology useful for fighting terrorism online, precompetitive research in agriculture implies the sharing of crop research results to improve production worldwide.

The premise is that the Bayers and DowDuPonts (and state and private educational institutions) of the world can work together to make something better than any one entity could on its own, and the mutual benefit outweighs any perceived loss of competitive advantage.

I first learned about this global crop science initiative in a recent post by CIAT’s Glenn Hyman in the CIAT Blog. He further underlined the potential time and money savings from sharing data and avoiding repetitious experiments.

Glenn, together with others, has also done something about the problem by creating and managing an online database called AgTrials.

Billed as “The Global Agriculture Trial Repository and Database,” AgTrials is a place where researchers can up- and download crop research data from around the world. Though still needing input from many regions and crops from around the world, AgTrials is a promising means to help widen the crop data-sharing bottleneck.

Also important in this effort are AgTrials’s current and proposed connections to, and integration with, other big-data resources. These include The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP), the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), the Crop Ontology Curation Tool, and the Genesys genebank.

As these projects solidify and coalesce, Reynolds et al.’s vision of “global integration of crop research” may well be realized.

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A further obstacle to the “global integration of crop research” that I contemplate is one raised in this blog at the beginning of the year: language.

In that blog post, I referenced Amano et al.’s PLOS Biology paper titled “Languages are still a major barrier to global science,” and their finding that, while English has become the lingua franca of science, many non-English-speaking scientists continue to publish important research in their mother tongue. While no doubt useful in the locale where the researcher’s language is spoken, to have its full global impact this research would need to become available in English as well.

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Any further thoughts on how to “Improve global integration of crop science”?


Author: Paul Froese

I am a freelance Spanish to English translator specializing in scientific and technical texts. Visit my translation website at

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