31 Mar

Company Spotlight: The Danforth Center

By Emily Frisan

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri serves as the world’s largest non-profit independent plant-research institution, with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Born and raised in St. Louis, founder William H. Danforth, MD, and his family established their heart and passion for STL’s local economy and community, establishing the agrifood center in 1998. The Center’s work ranges vastly from subsurface impacts of root development to new agtech — just about everything under the sun for plant science. Because their guiding mission tackles food security, most of their work is focused on commercially relevant crops: how they grow, how they capture the energy of the sun, how they resist diseases and environmental changes. AGS spoke with Elliott Kellner, Director of Commercial Innovation, on how the Center uses “basic science conducted with an applied focus in mind to mobilize, commercialize, and put new tech into practice as rapidly as possible.”

The Danforth Center’s research grade plant growth facility includes 82 plant growth chambers that are collecting data 24/7. The chambers serve as small versions of a greenhouse, and like a refrigerator, scientists are able to control and alter the growing environment to replicate just about every climate type imaginable, from modifying light types and wavelengths to heat stressors and tolerance for food production crops. Additionally, their new 140-acre experimental farm is a Missouri legacy farm with suitable topographic and soil conditions for field testing new products and technologies developed in the lab — essentially serving as an agricultural research playground. Their research in STL serves as the practical testing grounds for global applications. Considering 80% of corn and soy production in the United States occurs within 500 miles of St. Louis, the Danforth Center is located in the middle of the world’s breadbasket. If the Center was dedicated to general agriculture research, it could be located virtually anywhere, however due to the emphasis on food security, the Center decided to be right in the center of crop production. 

What sets the Center apart is its real-world applications instead of simply conducting science for the sake of research. All initiatives at the Center target the development of  new tools and products for independent producers as well as agricultural corporations. Members of the Center also support regional economic development through their strategic partnerships. The traditional narrow definition of geospatial and geography has largely expanded in recent years, and much of their work includes elements of geospatial science. “If you want to do work in the physical world, you have to collect spatial data. There’s no way around it,” Kellner stated, adding that “older analytical methods are limited.” Drone-based and landsat imagery are now being applied to agriculture and plant science to collect massive data sets to understand and answer basic production questions. In fact, a recent presentation on March 30th, Conversations: Mapping the Future of St. Louis, brought together industry and thought leaders for a “fireside chat” style meeting. With a majority of their events open to the public, they hope to inform the community on their initiatives to improve the future of food through use of satellite imagery and geovisualization.

With their vision to work for “Plants, People, and Purpose,” the Center uses their initiatives to generate $412M in annual economic impact via jobs, projects, and new technology for the St. Louis Region. Their scientists are also growing beyond plants; they’re growing new ways to think about food, fuel, fiber, and new possibilities for cleaner and healthier crops for more productive farming communities to support global food security. With new tools for independent small farmers, as well as larger commercial organizations, the Danforth Plant Science Center continues to display their passion for the STL region, while promoting and strengthening crop production around the world. 

To learn more about the Danforth Center and their critical work to make the world more food secure, check out their website here. As AGS prepares for our newest and upcoming Geography2050 Symposium in STL, we are pleased to be working alongside the Danforth Center to address the Symposium theme, Feeding Our Future Planet.