Published on 12/03/97

New NESPAL Lab to Help Farming, Environment

Gov. Zell Miller and others will officially open the Tifton, Ga., doors of the National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory on Dec. 12.

The $6 million University of Georgia lab is the only one of its type in the nation. Its goal is to enable scientists to find better ways to grow food and fiber crops while protecting the environment.

"This has been a vision we've all had for several years," said Craig Kvien, NESPAL coordinator and crop physiologist at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences' Tifton campus. "This facility is a prototype that we hope will be adapted to other regions across the nation."

NESPAL evolved from scientists' conducting research across many disciplines. "This laboratory provides a way for scientists to get together to work on some 'bigger-picture' issues we face today," Kvien said.

For example, entomologists can find ways to control the insects devouring tomato plants. But they can also work with biotechnologists to make the plants resist the insects. That way, growers don't have to use chemicals that may harm the environment.

"So many problems facing agriculture today," said CAES dean and director Gale Buchanan, "can't be adequately solved by scientists working alone."

The cooperative work goes beyond even the scientist teams, Kvien said.

"One of our strengths is our link with other academic and industry groups," he said. "That brings together the talents of academics and the practicality of industry to make the research not only faster, but more easily adapted to production."

Kvien expects some of today's NESPAL research to be in the field in less than five years. He's understandably excited about NESPAL.

"It's not this unit alone that can accomplish anything," he said. "It's this unit working with all the others and communicating results. That's what will get us to our food production and environmental protection goals."

Current NESPAL projects include:

* Precision agriculture that allows farmers to better apply fertilizers or pesticides where needed.

* Riparian zone management to control nonpoint pollution.

* How pest-control methods affect marketing standards and consumer demands for produce.

* Developing computer-based systems to make more effective pest-control decisions.

* Study of how pesticides and fertilizers move through the soil and other landscape features.

* Using plant and animal processing byproducts as resources.

* Developing pest-resistant crops with artificial and natural breeding programs.

* Finding better ways to produce native plants for landscape use.

The lab has been operating since 1992. But cramped office and lab space limited scientists' work. The new building has 40,000 square feet.

Funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Georgia Research Alliance and others helped pay for the new building. It houses 14 offices, 12 labs and seminar and conference rooms.

Architects designed the building with the environment in mind. It's nestled into a soil berm and topped by a reflective white roof. Solar collectors heat water for the building, and motion- and light-sensitive switches control the lighting.