Horticulture student Amy Boul, inspects an edible plants at Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville, GA.

Innovations at Work in Agriculture

Today, there is a wide new frontier for science and innovation in agriculture. There are many ways to grow food and fiber, and so much to learn about the science of growing crops.  Modern farming is full of opportunities for agricultural partnerships with scientists in fields that range from biology to robotics.

Imagine all the areas where science and agriculture might meet—the future of agriculture is now.

Did you know...?

  • The breed of turkey that appears on Thanksgiving tables across the country every year was developed by USDA. It is called the “Beltsville White,” after the USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.
  • Do you like seedless red grapes? How about blueberries? USDA scientists developed popular varieties of these fruits.
  • Did you know that the USDA developed the disposable diaper?  The original disposable diapers had a modified starch layer called “super slurper,” that USDA developed in our labs.
  • Have you ever gotten a shot of antibiotics when you were sick? USDA scientists figured out how to mass-produce penicillin during WWII.
  • Did you ever drink orange juice made from frozen concentrate? USDA scientists developed this process.

MegaBee is an artificial diet developed by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS)

Just in 2014, USDA:

  • Supported research into methods to remove up to 98 percent of allergens from peanuts without affecting their flavor
  • Developed a new process—using radio frequency energy—that pasteurizes shelled eggs 50 percent faster than the existing process
  • Developed a portable method to identify harmful food bacteria in food—that could help us better respond to outbreaks of foodborne illness
  • Developed a new mosquito-control method that “turns off” specific genes only in mosquitos and does not pose a danger to other insects, including helpful pollinators
  • Developed a soil test that rapidly and inexpensively determines the total amount of available nitrogen—an essential plant nutrient—reducing costs for farmers while benefiting the environment
  • Developed improved information on non-honey bee pollinators and methods for trapping bees to assure quality apple production.

Over the years, USDA discoveries and inventions have created a range of things Americans use every day, from food products to insect controls, medicine to clothing. These include:

  • "Tifsport", a turfgrass specially designed to withstand the wear and tear of major team sports that is used on sports fields across the country
  • "Permanent press" cotton clothing that does not need to be ironed to look good
  • DEET, the active ingredient in the world’s most effective and widely-used mosquito repellents
  • Almost all breeds of U.S. blueberries and cranberries currently in production, and 80 percent of all U.S. citrus fruit varieties

Farmers harvest potatoes.

Smithsonian Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archives 

During the course of its history, American agriculture has undergone tremendous transformations. Over the past 70 years, farming has become both more efficient and more sustainable, even as fewer and fewer Americans make their living as farmers. With the Agriculture Innovation and Heritage Archive, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is asking the public to help preserve farming and ranching innovations and experiences that have occurred across the United States. Visitors can share their stories and read about the technologies and innovations that have changed agricultural work, as well as how these changes have affected their communities.

The National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society has been inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888 as one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions in the world. Visit The Future of Food to learn about agriculture across the globe, and how to feed our growing planet.  

USDA Agricultural Research Service plant pathologists examine cotton roots with a microscope
What is STEM?

“STEM” stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Science is a part of everything—especially agriculture. Here are some examples:

  • Farmers rely on principles of BIOLOGY to grow plants and animals and to develop new growing techniques, which are the foundation of TECHNOLOGY.
  • Ranchers operate machinery and build farm structures using principles of ENGINEERING and TECHNOLOGY—maybe even ROBOTICS.
  • Scientists study and test agricultural diseases and pests using principles of MATHEMATICS, BIOLOGY, and CHEMISTRY.
  • New businesses make business plans and develop marketing strategies using PSYCHOLOGY and MATHEMATICS.
  • From PHYSICAL and BIOLOGICAL scientists to ECONOMISTS, these experts lay the foundation for our grading, standards, certification and market analysis

What other ways can you think of STEM being part of agriculture?

Engineering student surveying animal waste management systems on dairy farms
Technology and Science on the Farm

Farming is different today than it was even a few decades ago, largely due to major developments in science and farm and ranch technology.

Here are some examples:

Interns Ruth Oni and Yitzy Paul working in the Produce Quality and Safety Laboratory at the Agricultural Research Service
What is Agricultural Biotechnology?

Biotechnology refers to a variety of tools that alter living organisms to create specific traits or qualities. Biotechnology can include anything from traditional breeding techniques (like Mendel’s pea experiments) to genetic engineering that uses advanced methods to alter the genetic composition of an organism to achieve specific results. 

Learn more about how USDA works to ensure the safety of biotech crops.

Learn more about:
Check out USDA’s Science Tuesday blog series!
New Production Modes

Check out these exciting new ways farm businesses are finding to be part of their communities—it's happening everywhere! 

  • Urban agriculture—farm businesses are hard at work even in places like Detroit, New York City, Atlanta, and New Orleans
  • Hydroponics—growing vegetables not with soil but in a tank on top of water which also houses fish—letting the fish fertilize the plants
  • Aeroponics—growing plants in air or mist without the use of soil
  • Organic Production – producing and handling products using organic production methods
Ag Research

Research provides the reliable knowledge that helps farmers and ranchers succeed— whether it takes the form of peering through a microscope at tiny insects, hiking through a field collecting soil or water samples, or analyzing trends in crop acreage or commodity prices. USDA scientists and statisticians build a solid foundation for modern farming by:

We also give funds to universities, businesses, and even farmers to do their own research to:

New farmers and ranchers can reap the benefits of USDA research and get involved in research projects by contacting the nearest office of USDA and partner research organizations:

All across the board, USDA scientists are doing exciting research. See more here.  

Healthy soil retains water and is a key to the need to feed the world’s estimated 9 billion people by 2050.
Soil Health

One of the most important lessons science has taught us about agriculture is the importance of soil quality. A seed needs water, light, and air to grow, but it also needs nutrients that come from the soil. For soil to be productive and provide us with the best quality and quantity of food, we have to take care of it and nourish it. Some people say that American agriculture is in a “brown revolution,” because across the country, farmers and scientists are all focusing on how to build soil health and fertility.