The seemingly unusual intersection of technology and agriculture was the focus of a visit by two members of the House of Representatives at UNO on Wednesday.
During the visit, Congressmen Don Bacon (R-NE) and Jim Baird (R-IN) joined UNO faculty and administrators; local business leaders; and Whispering Roots, an Omaha-based non-profit with a focus on innovative agriculture techniques and STEM education, to identify opportunities for economic growth through educational partnerships and pipeline programs.
"As we get to 6 to 7 billion people globally we are also seeing fewer and fewer farmers," Bacon explained. "We need to make sure that folks understand the concepts of agriculture and that the next generation are leaders in this area."
Bacon and Baird are both members of the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee, which provides guidance on legislature with an agricultural focus.
A growing focus in the sector is in the area of environmentally controlled agriculture, where computer programs can closely monitor and adjust different environmental factors to maximize the elements of a plant's biology that can make food-based plants fresher, last longer and even taste better.
This is the kind of work being done by Kiran Bastola, an associate professor of bioinformatics at UNO whose food computer has been used by doctoral computer science students and elementary school students alike to better understand the concepts behind the food we eat.
"We need to be preparing young generations today so that when they go to college they are asking 'what is next?' and most of the time most people's first thought isn't going to be farming, but the hook is the IT component - technology-assisted farming."
Bastola has worked closely with Whispering Roots and its CEO Greg Fripp to bring technology like the food computer into classrooms in rural and urban areas across the region, especially those with high levels of food insecurity and fewer opportunities to learn STEM-based skills.
Fripp said that the more that young people are engaged at an early age, the more likely they are to envision themselves addressing the pressing issues that will impact the sector in the coming decades.
"Urban and rural, it doesn't matter," he said. "We need to grow food at the point of consumption, and we need to diversify our food systems. So, we're spending time getting these young agriculturalists into that pipeline because if we all want to eat we all be better be spending more time in this space getting those kids ready to go."
Baird and Bacon also visited UNMC earlier in the day to learn about other educational pipeline opportunities as well as agricultural health research.
Bacon said both visits show that the region can play a vital role in the next generation of food production.
"We want states like Nebraska and Indiana to be the bread basket of the world," Bacon said. "And we are doing that by exploring how we can use technology and repurpose what we already have to think creatively and address these important issues."
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.