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How to Feed 9 Billion? U.S. Must Make Agricultural Research a Priority


Steven Leath | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Food is plentiful and relatively inexpensive in the United States, thanks to many scientific advances across many disciplines. However, research funding for agriculture has stagnated, and it's hard to convince people that investments are needed now to prevent future food shortages, said Steven Leath, plant scientist and president of Iowa State University.

With the world's population estimated to be more than 9 billion by 2050, climate change impacts reducing crop yields and water supplies, and new diseases and pests arising, that food supply is not assured, Leath warned. "Personally, I think this is not only the greatest mission in the history of agriculture, I think it's the greatest challenge in human history. I'm not sure many people in society recognize that," Leath said. Adding to the challenge is that most of the population growth is projected to occur in areas that are already experiencing food scarcity, like Sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

$2.4 Billion

Approximate amount of U.S. annual spending on agricultural research

Steven Leath

$30 Billion

Approximate budget of the National Institutes of Health

Steven Leath

"As we see crises coming, how will we support research to meet these huge problems? Where will the funding come from?" Leath said. Federal spending on food, agriculture, and natural resources issues has not increased (after adjusting for inflation) since the 1980s and may be contributing to a slowing of the rate of increase in agricultural productivity. Agricultural research facilities are often the oldest on campuses and have outdated equipment. "We're sort of taken for granted," Leath said. "We need a long-term fix."

University leaders, researchers, farmers, agriculture organizations, and the public will need to speak with one voice to advocate for increased federal funding of agriculture, Leath told an audience during the AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture held at AAAS on 16 June. The lecture was endowed by the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation in 2008 to highlight the role of research and science in enhancing agriculture.

"The United States needs to double its agriculture investment in the next 10 years" to make sure it can meet the challenges ahead, Leath said. Current spending is about $2.4 billion; and while it sounds like a lot to add another $2 billion, he said, "if you look at trends in federal research, it's a doable number." For example, he said, funding for the National Institutes of Health was doubled in the early 2000s and is now about $30 billion. "We need an expanded set of resources, not a reallocation of resources. We need a bigger funding pie," Leath said.  

Leath referenced a report published by the Riley Memorial Foundation entitled "Pursuing a Unifying Message: Elevating Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Research as a National Priority." The report concludes that there is broad agreement for the need for more research funding, but agriculture advocacy groups, universities, researchers, and citizens will need to prioritize that message over other interests to get Congress to listen.

"What makes developing a unifying message difficult is that very few of us, maybe nobody in this room, has ever personally experienced food insecurity or a shortage issue," Leath said. However, the consequences of a lagging agricultural research enterprise will be felt not just in villages in Uganda and Somalia, he said, but in the United States.

"Personally, I think this is not only the greatest mission in the history of agriculture, I think it's the greatest challenge in human history."

Steven Leath

For some, the type of federal investment is also an issue, Leath said. Some of the land-grant universities' funding is from "capacity" funding that helps to assure the universities a steady source of revenue for the infrastructure of scientists and facilities. Competitive research grant programs are critically important and need to expand, but they do not allow for the continuity required to address timely challenges. "It's hard for me to imagine a land-grant university dealing with [agricultural crises] using competitive grants," Leath said.

For example, the recent outbreak of avian influenza has left 40 million birds dead in Iowa, a state that produces about 20% of all the country's eggs, Leath said. "Fortunately, Iowa State had the capacity to provide assistance to poultry growers and assist and educate the public," because capacity funding allowed them to have the staff and resources on hand, he said. However, the outbreak has still caused losses of more than $1 billion, Leath said. "If even a small portion of that can be eliminated or mitigated by capacity funding [for land-grant universities], that argues for it alone."

A panel discussion followed Leath's talk, moderated by Catherine Bertini, professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University and a fellow of the Chicago Council of Global Affairs. Bertini said that one way that funders and universities could justify asking for increased spending on agriculture research has been by connecting improved health outcomes to better nutrition.

Catherine Woteki, chief scientist and under secretary for Research, Education and Economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), agreed that having data on outcomes is important. The USDA is trying to find ways to provide evidence of health, economic, and other benefits resulting from its research, she said. However, "just because you're making the investment today doesn't mean that you're going to have an immediate return — it may come to full fruition decades in the future," Woteki said.

Don Villwock, a farmer and president of the Indiana Farm Bureau, said it's especially important to tell young people about the number of people who are affected or could be affected by food insecurity, since research has found many of them are not concerned about that issue. "I have been brought up to believe it's my duty as a farmer to feed my neighbors and my community," he said, a belief he hopes will spread.