Agricultural research priorities must shift to reflect the breadth and scale of the global challenges facing food and agriculture in the 21st century: meet future demand for food; conserve and enhance water, soil, and habitat; improve nutrition and public health; and strengthen farms and communities to improve livelihoods. Along with redirected priorities, agricultural research, education, and extension (REE) institutions in the United States and abroad must be strengthened to meet these challenges.
Studies consistently indicate a high return on investment in agricultural research, with estimates showing returns of 20:1 or more.1 Yet public research spending in the U.S. has slowed during the past few decades and support for international agricultural research has not been robust. Given the challenges identified by AGree, major breakthroughs are needed both in basic and applied agronomic research and in the development of technologies and techniques to intensify agricultural production in ecologically appropriate ways. Research must also be substantially more integrative, approaching challenges through interdisciplinary efforts that encompass the physical and social sciences and that involve leaders from government agencies, private industry, non-governmental organizations, farmers and ranchers, education and research institutions, the global research community, and more. And it is imperative to train the next generation of food and agricultural researchers, scientists, and producers to respond to emerging threats and opportunities.
The core components of the National Research Council’s (NRC) definition of sustainable agriculture, which were also used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) REE Action Plan (February 2012), should guide research investments to: (1) produce enough nutritious food to satisfy human needs, (2) enhance environmental quality and protect the natural resource base, (3) be profitable, and (4) increase the quality of life for farmers, farmworkers, and society as a whole.2
Prioritize key research issues: A more effective and efficient REE system will prioritize public-sector investment around critical research issues that are not adequately explored by the private sector. These issues include, but are not limited to, basic and applied agronomic research, soil health, reduction of post-harvest loss and food waste, agro-ecological systems, the nexus between nutrition and agricultural production, behavioral research, nutrient uptake, and fertilizer use efficiency.
Strengthen public institutions: REE institutions, including land-grant universities, USDA Agricultural Research Service, NSF, NIH, and other agencies, must reduce duplicative research, streamline knowledge sharing, and creatively coordinate efforts given dwindling research resources. AGree is actively pursuing how best to maximize the effectiveness of financial and human capital invested in REE.
Derive more benefit from research: 21st-century information communication technologies (ICT) can help ensure that publicly funded research findings are available and used. These ICT tools should also enable taxpayers to understand how the federal government is investing its resources, how these investments support national priorities, and what they can expect to result from these investments.
Expand the availability and attractiveness of food and agriculture education and training: U.S. universities offer opportunities to U.S. and international students that encompass the breadth of disciplines relevant to food and agriculture. The challenges facing food and agriculture, however, call for new complementary approaches to training and education. Increased emphasis on vocational training, inter-university collaboration, and other creative approaches, including a possible Global Doctorate of Agriculture, is needed. The needs of women in agriculture in developing countries should be emphasized. Elementary and secondary schools should also expand opportunities for non-farm students to see potential careers in food and agriculture.
Increase collaboration among developed and developing nations: The most significant expansion of agricultural productivity and food demand will, over the next 30 years, occur outside of the United States. Farms and agribusinesses in the developing world will expand, generating a growing number of job opportunities. Food and agricultural businesses will demand staff capable of understanding and working in a global environment. In order to build this human capacity, skill-sharing among nations must increase and funding should support regional subject matter specialization, as well as broadly applicable skills. To dramatically expand the cadre of individuals in developing nations with advanced food and agriculture expertise, increased collaboration among universities and other institutions in the U.S. and abroad must occur.
Although all the individuals formally affiliated with AGree may not agree completely with every statement noted, they are committed to working together to find solutions to the challenges facing food and agriculture. For citations, please visit http://foodandagpolicy.org/sites/default/files/AGree_position_citations.pdf
View or download a PDF version of the Strengthen Research, Education, and Extension position paper