As the world population continues to grow, how will North Carolina, one of the essential agricultural resources in the United States, keep up with increased crop demands? Maize, rice, and wheat will increase market demand by 70 percent within the next decade. Innovators across the country are developing a cacophony of change in how farmland is organized and used. North Carolina is one of the many states facing the most critical transitional stage for the agricultural industry, where leaders in the agricultural intensification space could garner unprecedented economic growth for the state while creating positive environmental and social changes.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Susanne Kjemtrup, our lead visionary for this year’s agricultural panel at the 2023 UNC Cleantech Summit. Dr. Kjemtrup received her Ph.D. from the University of California San Diego and moved to North Carolina for post-doctoral work at NC State University and UNC-Chapel Hill. During her time in the Triangle, she worked at startups and Monsanto before opening her own consulting company, Phyta Biotech Consulting. As a leader in this industry with years of expertise, she has been a core contributor to the Cleantech Summit for about four years.
“It has always been really fun. I think it is because there is such an interesting mix of people at that meeting. It’s not a pure science meeting. It’s not a pure professional meeting. It’s kind of a mixture of both. Then you have these students who ask great questions and professionals who ask questions nobody ever thought of before because we’re not in their field. So it’s pretty fun”.
We then spoke a bit about what she perceives as the essential parts of this transition in the agricultural sectors: “what is hot right now?”.
“Last time, we covered “regenerative agriculture” because the concept was really up and coming and popular, but now I feel like that term is on the wane. It means too much to different people. But, as we are seriously talking about climate change, I am thinking more specifically about agriculture solutions to climate change, which encompasses broad solutions, and this includes our panel topics: sustainable intensification, drought resilience, carbon capture and regenerative aquaculture, and fertilizer solutions”.
This year’s agricultural track is exciting and very different from last year’s Cleantech Summit when considering the context of the many new developments in domestic and international policy, economy, and technology.
“I think it’s in part due to this presidency. The Biden administration’s concept of conserving 30% of the land by 2030 drives this concept of sustainable intensification. For example, if you drive through traditional agriculture country in NC, you can see that farmers are planting their last crop, which is always a housing development. That’s where I see sustainable intensification in the current context. It is front and center in my mind because of the drive to try to conserve arable land.
Another panel will be drought resilience. Everybody experiences drought in different ways between the West and the East. That is what caught my attention. [Additionally] the salinity intrusion that we’re starting to see a lot of the eastern farmland is an important problem for coastal regions. So that’s why I put the drought resilience there”.
All these events affect farmers, the heart and soul of the agricultural industry. With Dr. Kjemtrup’s experience in both academia and the private sector, merging the private sector’s research, ideas, and values with academia is an essential focus for the agricultural panels she has orchestrated.
“So with sustainable intensification, the person who will be moderating that panel is Dr. Lucia Strader from Duke University. I worked with her and a team of people on the Climate-Plant Innovation Network. What they’re trying to do is get all this climate research that’s happening at the lab and get it into the hands of farmers. How do we make it a reality? I facilitated the beginnings of their network development. There is so much research out there that is fascinating. Still, a bench scientist sometimes has little experience on getting their particular research developed into the real world, into the hands of farmers in this case, so that it’s functional.”
That is what the clean tech summit is all about. Many students looking to enter the private sector or academia often question how their research or personal industry efforts will help genuinely impact the world around them. The Cleantech Summit is an answer to this question.
“Students are passionate about climate change. This is their future. You can complain about it, but don’t you want to be part of the solution? There’s so much to do. Then the fascinating thing about this particular conference is that it’s so broad. It covers energy, transportation, and agriculture; we’ll even have some social components to it as well. So it’s comprehensive. And there’s a lot of work to do. So one individual is not going to save the world, but there are a lot of opportunities. And if you want to find out what that opportunity is, this is a great conference. A lot of professionals that come are coming because they want to network with students. And professionals are far from the university ecosystem, but they know they need talent. It’s also an excellent networking opportunity.
This quick conversation only scraped the surface of what the agricultural panel, sustainable intensification, and The UNC Cleantech Summit have in store. To learn more about sustainable intensification or any of these topics, the 2023 summit will take place on March 27th through the 28th at the Friday Conference Center. We look forward to seeing you there.
This article was written by Marcos Gregorio, a spring 2023 UNC Cleantech Corner Initiative intern. Connect with him on LinkedIn.