Research Funders and the Public Must Wake up to Looming Food Shortages, Agriculture Experts Say

Only basic research can help food producers find solutions to challenges posed by population growth and climate change, but increased funding doesn’t yet have public support, an expert panel told a AAAS audience.
Field trials at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension center seek to find new wheat varieties that can grow where the crop has not traditionally been grown in Texas. | Paul Schattenberg; Flickr/agrilifetoday

Around the world, 840 million people are chronically hungry. To feed them and meet the increased food demand due to population growth, the world will need to more than double its food production in the next 35 years. At the same time, though, growers will face climate change impacts, including increased drought, higher temperatures, and severe storms, and will have limited new land to put into agriculture.

But the real problem, said Dan Glickman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, is that most people don't realize we are facing this dire situation and so aren't demanding that something be done to solve it. 

Dan Glickman | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

"In the 20th century, increased productivity due to cropland expansion and scientific breakthroughs made it possible to grow the global food supply exponentially, extend life expectancy around the world, and keep prices low for most of the world's consumers," Glickman said. But, "we have become a victim of our success, and have become rather complacent" about food production. We are relying on knowledge gained from past research, and failing to invest in new agricultural research — research that is needed now in order to have solutions ready in three decades, he said.

"Given these challenges facing agriculture, it is far from assured that agricultural output can climb enough to keep pace with expected demand, let alone be helpful to farmers and consumers in the developing world."

Glickman's comments were part of the AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture, which he delivered at AAAS headquarters on 4 June. The lecture was followed by a panel discussion with four other agriculture experts. Glickman also previously served as a U.S. Representative from Kansas, and is currently executive director of the Aspen Institute's Congressional Program, and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

10-15%

The portion of the USDA budget that funds competitive research grants

80%

The portion of the National Institutes of Health budget that fund such grants

His recommendations for addressing the problem begin with integrating agriculture research with other fields, including at federal agencies and universities, and encouraging collaboration with private companies. "We need to broaden the focus of agriculture and food science," Glickman said. The Green Revolution during the 1960s and '70s largely focused on increasing food production, especially in developing countries, he said, and did not account for environmental conservation or nutrition, issues that must be addressed now, along with climate change impacts.

Also, while it needs to be better funded, the USDA should also seriously consider increasing the amount of money it reserves for competitive research awards, to ensure the best research is being funded, he said. Currently, only 10 to 15 percent of the USDA's $2.7 billion budget is competitively awarded, compared to more than 80 percent of the National Institute of Health's $29 billion budget and of the National Science Foundation's $8 billion budget, respectively, he said.

In addition, about a third of all food is wasted globally, Glickman said, sometimes spoiling before it ever reaches the market. Improved efficiency in food production, delivery, and other stages can help meet part of the world's food demand.

"Some people want organic food and like farmers markets. That doesn't mean they're opposed to good science."

Dan Glickman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

Finally, to gain support for increased agriculture research funding, agriculture proponents need to educate people about possible scientific solutions without dismissing their concerns. For instance, Glickman said he supports the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but he says they are not the only solution, and he is dismayed by industry proponents who label people who oppose their use as "Luddites" or "stupid."

He returned to that point later in the panel discussion, after Leon Bruner, executive vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Grocery Manufacturer's Association said: "There's a drumbeat from the food elite that wants to take us back to nature and local production — to take a step back from the advances we have made." These and other anti-science constituents are the reason Congress won't support increased agriculture funding, he said.

Glickman responded: "Some people want organic food and like farmers markets. That doesn't mean they're opposed to good science. We need to respect that people have different points of view."

From left, Leon Bruner, Gebisa Ejeta, Dan Glickman, Philip Pardey, Catherine Woteki | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for research, education, and economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that people involved in agriculture need to speak with a more unified voice about the need for increased agriculture research funding. She agreed with Glickman that the USDA needs to partner with other federal agencies.

Even if funding for research is increased, it takes decades for research investments to pay off as useful improvements, said Philip Pardey, professor of science and technology at the University of Minnesota. "So you need a lot of foresight," about what research to fund, he said.

Gebisa Ejeta, professor of plant breeding and genetics and international agriculture at Purdue University, agreed with Glickman that "complacency" is the biggest problem. "Science-based agriculture has been so successful, yet it's lost its support here in the U.S., where it was really created." To change that, "we need to restore support and make modern agriculture attractive and sexy around the world."