Top Agricultural Scientist: U.S. Must Move Beyond “Arrogance of Plenty”

After decades of benefiting from past investments in agricultural science, the United States now faces a watershed moment in which it must move beyond the “arrogance of plenty,” the government’s chief agricultural scientist told a AAAS audience recently.

Roger Beachy

Roger Beachy

Farmers have used conventional breeding practices to make huge strides in crop and animal productivity over the years, said Roger Beachy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But that will not be enough in a world where food production likely will have to double by 2050 to meet the demands of rising global population, he said. Americans and others in the developed world have taken for granted the bounty they enjoy.

“Because we do not feel the hunger that gnaws at nearly a billion of the world’s citizens and because the few American farmers that feed America and much of the world are often out of sight and out of mind of urbanites,” Beachy said, “we have become complacent in the support and advocacy for agriculture research.”

Beachy delivered the inaugural AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture at a packed AAAS Auditorium on 15 June. The lecture, in memory of the prolific 19th century writer, artist and chief of the Federal Entomological Service, was co-sponsored by the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation in collaboration with the World Food Prize Foundation.

Beachy discussed what he calls an “arrogance of plenty,” in which we give little or no thought to whether there will be food tomorrow in the supermarket, or fiber for clothes, paper for books, and lumber for home construction. But that bounty is not limitless.

“We are most assuredly living on the fruits of past investments,” Beachy said, some of them going back generations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was established by President Abraham Lincoln as an agency with a focus on science. America’s land-grant colleges and universities helped create “the most productive agricultural system this Earth has ever known,” Beachy said.

With the exception of a few bright spots, Beachy said, federal funding for agricultural research has been declining or stagnant for decades, threatening the future health and wealth of rural communities as well as the nation’s long-term food security. Industry has picked up some of the slack, he said, but much of the private sector funding for agricultural research “is focused on relatively short-term, high-impact outcomes that will support product lines” and benefit the bottom line.

“This seems to me a mistake at a time when funds are so badly needed to advance a fundamental understanding of the organisms on which the science of agriculture and sustainability are based,” Beachy said.

He noted that industry has the potential to do more. Producers of agricultural commodities such as milk, pork, beef, eggs, potatoes, and honey contribute more than $645 million annually to a mandatory assessment program called commodity checkoffs. The great majority of the money now goes to marketing and promotion rather than research.

With transformative change underway in agricultural research—driven largely by advances in biotechnology—Beachy argued that only the federal government is in a position to help fully exploit that change with forward-looking research grants.

He acknowledged the tight budget climate but said he is determined not “to preside over a flat budget and a research paradigm more suited to the 19th century than the 21st century.”

The Obama administration has proposed a 63 % increase in the 2011 fiscal year (to $429 million) for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, NIFA’s main funding mechanism for competitive research grants.

“We must and we will advocate for strong funding,” said Beachy, who formerly led the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and was appointed as the first director of the newly established NIFA in October 2009. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an elected Fellow of AAAS, and is known for his groundbreaking research on developing virus-resistant plants.

To address the agricultural challenges of the 21st century, Beachy said, there also must be a realignment and revitalization of research programs. He cited some of the recommendations of a 2009 National Research Council report on “A New Biology for the 21st Century” in calling for a unified research approach that addresses big, bold questions.

Barriers between academic departments and between different college campuses and laboratories must be removed, Beachy said. In place of the current emphasis on individual investigators, he urged more team-oriented research that combines the talents of engineers, biochemists, geneticists, crop and animal scientists, specialists on food processing, and others.

As an example, he said, a team might tackle the puzzle of why nutritional status can vary so widely from person to person. The answer likely will come by knowing the genetics of individuals, the diversity of the microbes in their intestinal tracts and how diet affects the metabolism of those microbes in releasing nutrients we absorb. Such a project might call on the sciences of human genomics, nutrition, microbial genomics, population biology, plant genetics, and biochemistry, Beachy said. The outcome could be development of crops and foods that are optimally matched for individual health and well-being.

“How long before we’ll go down the food aisle with a barcode [device] that knows our genetic composition and the biochemical composition of the foods on the shelves?” he asked, allowing us to select foods that lead to better health and well being.

Since solving such problems will require scientists from many disciplines, it “clearly will not be business as usual at USDA,” Beachy said. The transformation also will require changes in how science is performed at the nation’s research universities. “We have to move away from agricultural research as an entitlement program,” he said. Earmarking of small amounts of money for specific researchers or universities to address specific local problems does not serve national goals, Beachy said.

In addition to more emphasis on goal-oriented, team-focused research, he said, universities also must find ways to “reward faculty for their interactions rather than their independence,” he said.

Researchers who seek NIFA-funded competitive grants also should be prepared to focus on target areas the agency has identified, including food production and sustainability; biofuels, climate change and the environment; food safety and nutrition; and global food security, Beachy said. And it is essential that the practical results of NIFA-funded research grants find their way into the real world of farmers and consumers, he said. (The Agricultural Extension Service, in existence for more than 100 years, is admirably suited to provide such linkages between the lab and the farm field, he said.)

Molly Jahn

Molly Jahn

Molly Jahn, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, agreed with Beachy that agricultural research is at a pivotal moment, not only to help ensure food security but also to address some of the climate-driven changes in planetary ecosystems that will affect food production.

“This is no time to coast,” said Jahn, who moderated a panel discussion following Beachy’s lecture.

Neil Conklin

Neil Conklin

Neil Conklin, the president of the Farm Foundation, said that farmers have “a long history of innovation and of appreciation for the power of science.” Despite that, he said, farmers also have had ambivalent attitudes toward science, with a focus by most farm organizations on how to maintain and boost incomes rather than on research.

That has been changing, Conklin said, with a realization by farmers that a strong research effort will be needed if agricultural output is to double by 2050. Farmers understand that without research “you’re going to slide backward,” he said. He added that most new farmers today are college-educated and have the ability to take on ever-more sophisticated levels of technology. That, too, will drive interest in and support for agricultural research.

Internationally, there also is a new understanding of the value of agricultural sciences, said Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopian-born professor of agronomy at Purdue University and the 2009 winner of the World Food Prize for major contributions to the production of sorghum.

Gebisa Ejeta

Gebisa Ejeta

While technical assistance is helpful for developing counties, Ejeta said, it is just as important to develop a “can do” spirit in local, country-led research programs. “What is needed, in my view, is a wake up call” for local policy-makers, he said, so they begin to believe in the power of science and technology and make commitments to invest in research. Many leaders in developing countries don’t yet recognize the returns that can result from such investment, he said.

Like Beachy, Ejeta called for purpose-driven research pursued by public-private partnerships that tackle some of the growing challenges being faced by agriculture: climate change, water scarcity, energy efficiency. And he reminded the audience that despite the benefits of agricultural science, too much of the world still goes hungry.

“With all the breakthroughs that we have made in science around the world, we have not been able to give humanity that fundamental right, that God-given right to enough food,” Ejeta said. “I recognize that.” But he remains optimistic that “our collective vision, our creativity and our sciences can… address issues of agriculture and natural resource management at home and abroad in a more holistic way than ever before.”

Links

Listen to Beachy’s inaugural Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture.

Read more about the AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture.