With U.S. agriculture now asked to double food production while addressing new challenges ranging from energy independence to ending obesity, a coalition of farm and consumer groups, universities, and scientific organizations launched a new initiative to focus federal science policy on delivering innovations American consumers and farmers urgently need. "America today lacks an agricultural research enterprise capable of directing the full might of the nation's scientific brainpower toward solving an array of problems that agriculture is uniquely suited to solve," said William Danforth, Chancellor Emeritus of Washington University in St. Louis, who is serving on the Founding Board of Supporters of Agricultural Research (SOAR).
"A key reason for this shortcoming is that insufficient funding is allocated for agriculture grants that are open to all scientists regardless of their field. This shortfall is severely inhibiting our ability to convince top minds in fields like engineering, molecular biology, computer science, genomics, and nanotechnology to pursue solutions to agriculture-related problems," he added. The other members of the SOAR Board are Carol Tucker-Foreman, a Distinguished Fellow at the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America; Don Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University, past Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine, and a former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Roger Beachy, President Emeritus of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the former director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
"The United States needs to reconfigure and enlarge its support for food and agriculture research and follow the lead of our partners in China and Brazil who have recently invested heavily and broadly in agricultural science and are pushing the boundaries of what agriculture can accomplish," Beachy said.
Keeping Pace with Global Competitors
For example, in recent years China has responded to its agriculture and food security concerns by doubling its investment in agricultural research and development while the United States is barely sustaining 1 percent annual growth in funding. Meanwhile, proposals for federal investments in agricultural research now circulating in the U.S. House and Senate would actually cut funding. SOAR believes the best way to tap into America's deep well of scientific innovation and address the broad range of human problems related to food and agriculture is to significantly increase support for a research grants program that encourages individual scientists to put forth their strongest ideas and then awards funding to the best-designed and most important proposals.
"Maintaining stability in a world in which food availability is closely tied to national security, honoring our commitment to the American farmer, and infusing international health and development efforts with America's capacity for agriculture innovation-these are all challenges that will benefit from an agricultural research program that supports the highest quality science from the broadest range of disciplines," Kennedy said. Kennedy noted that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has used the investigator-initiated approach to funding research to create an engine for biomedical innovation that is the envy of the world. "We think a well-funded competitive grants program can do the same thing for food and agriculture-related issues," he said.
SOAR is calling on Congress to fully fund the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) at the United States Department of Agriculture. AFRI is the only agriculture-oriented competitive grants program in the U.S. that awards funding to individual researchers to attack the most important problems facing our food and agriculture system. When AFRI was created in 2008, Congress envisioned a budget of over $700 million per year for this vital enterprise, However, Congress has approved only $264 million for 2012, less than 40 percent of the intended funding. This minimalist approach is unlikely to result in the major breakthroughs required to meet the stated goals. By comparison, the budget last year for the NIH was $30.6 billion, most of which has been invested in investigator-initiated grants.
"Food-borne illness are causing thousands of deaths and costing billions of dollars each year even as new food-related pathogens continue to emerge, yet we don't have the basic biology to predict how and where they will begin to cause illness and death," Tucker-Foreman said. "Nor do we have the science to ensure that new technologies and production methods don't create unanticipated threats to human life. "It's time to make sure we have the very best biologists, psychologists, nutritionists, economists, and statisticians engaging these difficult problems," she added. Tucker-Foreman also noted that America needs its top scientists confronting nutritional challenges, from the hunger that still affects millions of people around the world to the overconsumption of food that is closely linked to soaring rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. These so-called "afflictions of the affluent" are becoming major health concerns even in countries like China that were once plagued with food shortages.
Research in Action
After just a few years of existence and with a relatively small budget, AFRI is already showing how investigator-initiated awards can broaden the circle of scientists working in agriculture and food related concerns.
• Scientists from MIT and Harvard are using their genome sequencing expertise to join the fight against a wheat disease called stripe rust that in the last ten years has destroyed 246 million bushels of U.S. wheat and as a threat to wheat production worldwide.
• Biomedical researchers at Baylor are using their knowledge and insights into the biological mechanisms involved in cell behaviors to look for ways to boost the amount of iron and zinc in rice. Some 2 to 5 billion people who consume rice as a dietary staple suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies that are linked to a number of health and developmental problems, particularly in children.
• Scientists at the University of Connecticut are using nanotechnology to develop a new vaccine to halt the spread of avian influenza in poultry facilities-a problem with enormous implications for both farmers and public health.
• At Kansas State, chemical engineers are looking for new ways to develop biofuels and industrial chemicals from perennial grasses that can be grown on marginal lands.
• A multi-institution inter-disciplinary team led by scientists at the University of California at Davis is undertaking an ambitious effort to enable farmers to cope with the effect of climate change, disease, and the increasing costs of fertilizer and other inputs on wheat and barley production in the U.S.
• Scientists at the University of Missouri are engaged in a ground-breaking research project to consider what happens when humans ingest "nano-scale" products increasingly found in our food supply. In a related project, as the environmental release of engineered nanoparticles increases, scientists from Southern Illinois University are investigating whether vegetables that grow underground will accumulate higher concentrations of these particles than other crops and whether simple preparation techniques can reduce human exposures.
• Scientists at the University of North Carolina are trying to enhance the natural immunity in oysters to two different types of bacteria that are the most important causes of seafood-borne illnesses in the United States.
• Scientists at the Texas A&M University and the University of Missouri are engaged in research to identify cattle that use feed more efficiently. The goal of the project is to improve productivity in the meat and milk industries.
• Scientists at the University of Florida are identifying genes that control productivity, wood quality, and disease resistance in loblolly pine, a species widely cultivated in the southeast United States. Southern states provide a significant amount of the world's wood supply, but production levels are threatened by disease, water, and soil health-problems likely to intensify with anticipated changes in climate.
"We have traditionally allocated funding for agricultural research by formulas that direct money to specific programs and institutions that have close ties to our farmers," Danforth said. "That approach has achieved great success in the past but it must be complemented with a future in which breakthrough innovations can easily come from both inside and outside the conventional confines of agricultural research." In April, former Agriculture Secretaries John Block, Clayton Yeutter, Dan Glickman, and Mike Espy sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to boost support for AFRI. "We know, like in the past, that the results will not be immediate and are often accidental but the additional investment will mean more people can get to work now so that we have solutions in the future," they said.