The United States currently leads the world in food production; but in order for this to remain true, the government must invest more in agricultural research, says a committee of the nation’s leading scientists and technology experts in a new report to the president. The document, issued Friday by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), recommends a boost of $700 million per year for agricultural research — and outlines where the money should be spent. The Federal government currently spends $3.8 billion on agricultural research, while state governments spend $1.9 billion, according to the report. Private sector spending amounts to approximately $8.7 billion. Some research areas are being explored by both the private and public sector, while others remain underfunded at the government level and untouched by the private sector, says the Council. Specifically, PCAST describes seven fields that require more study. First on the list is keeping up with new pests and pathogens. While plant diseases pose a threat to plant health, new strains of animal pathogens are emerging, and old ones are becoming resistant to treatments, says the committee. “Many of the best therapeutic agents heavily used in controlling the more problematic pathogens are losing their effectiveness due to evolved resistance by the pathogens,” reads the report. “Using a range of discoveries in basic molecular biology and genetics, new approaches must be developed to deal with the problem of resistance to treatments of both plant and animal diseases.” Other issues that require attention, according to the group, include:
– Increasing the efficacy of water use
– Reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture
– Adapting to changes resulting from global climate change
– Managing the production of biofuels and bioenergy
Another category of concern is food safety and nutrition, notes PCAST. Recent foodborne illness outbreaks highlight the need to improve pathogen protection measures, it says. “The U.S. food supply has become increasingly diverse in origin; as this trend continues, protecting the public from both known and potentially new sources and kinds of bacteria and food-borne illnesses will be an increasing challenge.” Then there’s the question of nutrition. The national obesity epidemic, which is affecting more than one-third of adults in the U.S., illustrates the need to more knowledge about the role of food in obesity, which can lead to life threatening illnesses such as diabetes, heart attack and cancer. Part of the solution will be figuring out how to make nutritious foods such as fruit, vegetables and lean meat more affordable, say the authors. Another will be looking closely at causes of obesity. While fat and salt are the current targets of nutrition efforts, sugar is also a major contributor to obesity, and its connection to weight-related health problems has yet to be completely explored, point out the authors. The last area of focus recommended by the Council is food security. Over the next decade, the number of people without enough to eat will rise from 37 million to 900 million people, with the greatest severity in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the report. Meanwhile, food productivity only is expected to increase by 40 percent. Improving food security in developing countries will help keep food prices from becoming unstable and contributing to political instability, argues the group. The committee urges the Obama Administration to invest in technologies that will increase the efficiency of food production in the developed world. PCAST says agriculture should continue to be a priority even in the face of budget limitations. “In challenging budget times, PCAST recognizes the difficulty of recommending an increase in research funding. At the same time, PCAST feels that such an investment is appropriate, given the scale of challenges and opportunities and the essential role that agricultural research has in the Nation’s economy.” Go here for the full report.