07.18.2018

New National Academies Report Identifies Five Key Research Fields in Blueprint for Transforming U.S. Agriculture and Food Production in the Decades Ahead

WASHINGTON, DC (July 18, 2018)—A new blueprint produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), “Science Breakthroughs 2030,” lays out how research can transform the fields of agriculture and food production. Drawn from an extensive process that incorporated the voices of 146 scientists in dozens of fields, the report highlights potential “breakthroughs” through five critical initiatives of agricultural research that need to be prioritized—microbiomes, gene editing, data analysis, sensors and biosensors, and transdisciplinary collaborations.

“Agriculture is confronting a crisis no less epic than the dustbowl of the 1930s,” said Thomas Grumbly, President of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, which commissioned the NASEM report. “The American scientific community has now mapped out how we can transform food production, answering many of the challenges that have emerged to getting dinner on the table every night. It’s on us now to implement this blueprint.”

“Science Breakthroughs 2030” examines current technology and how it measures up to the hurdles faced by farmers and food producers today. It indicates that we are not on target to address some of the most pressing issues in the field—limitations on water resources, market instability, sustainability, soil degradation, changing climates and growing seasons, as well as evolving pests and pathogens in the crops and on the food. The scope of these problems demands transformational innovation.

Over the past year, the National Academies canvassed researchers in a wide variety of fields through a series of live events and webinars. Through a consensus-building process, the report’s Study Committee identified the five most important initiatives that need to be tackled:

  1. The potential of microbiomes—primarily in the animal gut and in soil—to increase efficiency and overcome obstacles in production
  2. Advancements in genetic evaluation and editing, including making the most of CRISPR and other technologies to accelerate the evolution of food production
  3. Expanding and analyzing many pools of data involved in growing and producing food
  4. Developing and improving sensors and biosensors across all agricultural sectors to increase productivity and better target interventions
  5. Examining, through transdisciplinary collaborations, entire systems in food production and finding the keys to adapting and transforming them to overcome challenges and increase production

“Farmers have always embraced innovation, no matter how small, in our struggles to stay afloat,” said Richard Wilkins, a soybean and corn farmer from Greenwood, Delaware, and SoAR board member. “But now it’s time for big changes. Incremental progress cannot hold back the flood of challenges confronting us.”

Advocates plan to use the “Science Breakthroughs 2030” report for the effort to increase the federal government’s investments in agricultural research. Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has received less than 4 percent of the federal research budget, down from almost 40 percent in 1940. The U.S. now trails China in both government investments in agricultural research as well as agricultural production.

The Farm Bill sets the priorities and scope of the USDA every five years, and the 2018 bill is currently awaiting a Congressional Conference to resolve differences in House and Senate priorities. But research may not be a central topic for the Conference; both the House and Senate versions of the 2018 bill would keep research funding at near the same level as the previous Farm Bill.

“This blueprint is a golden opportunity for the U.S. to reassess and expand on how it currently invests in the farm and food sciences,” explained Dr. Alan Leshner, former Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and SoAR board member. “There has been plenty of research establishing how steep a climb we have in increasing the food supply. It’s now time to unleash the full potential of science in solving these problems.”

The funding issues can be seen best with the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the flagship competitive grants program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). AFRI funds a good portion of the work already being conducted in these “breakthrough” fields despite its budget limitations.

Since the program’s inception 10 years ago, only one-quarter of all of the grants rated as high-value science have been funded due to lack of resources. Currently, the program’s annual budget is $400 million, slightly more than half the $700 million level authorized by Congress in the past two Farm Bills.

“Current science has gotten us quite far, but we’ll need an agricultural moonshot in order to solve some of the most pressing issues facing food production and security today,” concluded Grumbly. “This blueprint shows how research investments can accelerate food production at a time when the world needs it most.”

Science Breakthroughs 2030 was funded by the SoAR Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, National Science Foundation, and 23 other foundations, scientific societies, commodity groups, and university associations.

The full report can be found here.

More details on the process can be found here.

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