At a public meeting at the White House, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report entitled, “Report to the President on Agricultural Preparedness & the Agriculture Research Enterprise.”

The report concludes that the United States is the undisputed world leader in agricultural production today, but also cautions that US agriculture faces a number of challenges that are poised to become much more serious in the years ahead. The report prioritizes the top seven scientific challenges facing agriculture: the need to manage new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increase the efficiency of water use; reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture; adapt to a changing climate; and accommodate demands for bioenergy.

(For more, see: Agriculture research future threatened by budget cuts)

PCAST notes that the United States is deriving a substantial societal return on its current investments in agricultural research. Based on an analysis of nearly three dozen studies focused on the impact of agricultural research on food, feed, and energy production and on food safety and nutrition over the past several decades, PCAST concludes that the economy has gained at least $10 in benefits for every $1 invested in agricultural research.

However, the new report points to two major shortcomings in the current U.S. agricultural research enterprise. First, although competitive grants are widely recognized as having greater innovation potential than grants based on other mechanisms, the proportion of federal funding for agricultural research allocated through competitive mechanisms is far below the proportion for other fields of research in other science agencies. Second, the current agricultural research portfolio overlaps too much with private-sector activities while underfunding areas that are not adequately addressed through private efforts—a situation that calls out for a rebalancing of the research portfolio in favor of greater federal attention to basic, non-commercial research for the public good and workforce development.

For example, PCAST recommends that USDA rebalance its in-house research budget away from its current focus on commodities such as corn, soy, rice, wheat and cotton which today account for 36 percent of the USDA intramural research budget. The private sector already is motivated to invest in improvements in these crops, according to the report, and USDA should aim more of its resources at targets that offer fewer immediate benefits to the private sector.

Overall, the report recommends that the United States increase its investment in agricultural research by a total of $700 million per year to nurture a new “innovation ecosystem” that would leverage the best of America’s diverse science and technology enterprise for advancements in agriculture. That would include an increase in the National Science Foundation budget for basic science relevant to agriculture to $250 million per year from the current $120 million and an increase in USDA’s budget for competitive funding of extramural research to $500 million per year from the current $265 million, consistent with the National Institute of Food & Agriculture 2008 congressional authorization.

The report observes that where new money is not feasible, there should be a continued focus on increasing the proportion of research funds awarded competitively and a strategic re-balancing of the research and development portfolio to the seven scientific challenges it identifies. Finally, PCAST calls for the creation of six large, multi-disciplinary innovation institutes focused on emerging challenges to agriculture, to be supported by public-private partnerships.