The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has issued a report urging the federal government to launch “a coordinated effort to boost American agricultural science by increasing public investments in that economically important domain and rebalancing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research portfolio.” According to a press release from the Executive Office of the President, the report also calls for the creation of a network of public-private agricultural “innovation institutes” to leverage the strengths of government scientists and commercial interests.
PCAST concludes that “the United States is the undisputed world leader in agricultural production today, but also cautions that U.S. agriculture also faces a number of challenges that are poised to become much more serious in the years ahead.” These challenges include (i) managing new pests, pathogens and invasive plants; (ii) increasing the efficiency of water use; (iii) reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture; (iv) adapting to a changing climate; and (v) accommodating demands for bioenergy—all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad.
Based on an analysis of nearly 36 studies focused on the impact of agricultural research on food, feed and energy production and on food safety and nutrition, the report notes that the United States has derived a “substantial societal return on its current investments in agricultural research,” with the economy gaining at least $10 in benefits for every $1 invested in agricultural research. PCAST, however, identifies two shortcomings in the current approach to U.S. agricultural research enterprises. “First, although competitive grants are widely recognized as having greater innovation potential than grants based on other mechanisms, the proportion of Federal funding for agricultural research allocated through competitive mechanisms is far below the proportion for other fields of research in other science agencies—due in part to longstanding Congressional constraints,” states the report. “Second, the current agricultural research portfolio overlaps too much with private-sector activities while underfunding areas that are not adequately addressed through private efforts—a situation that calls out for a rebalancing of the research portfolio in favor of greater Federal attention to basic, non-commercial research for the public good and workforce development.”
Focused public investment would not only invigorate agricultural research and create opportunities for new private-sector ventures, but also provide the means to train the next generation of farmers and agricultural researchers to meet the workforce demands of U.S. agriculture in the 21st century, the report concluded. Overall, PCAST recommends that the United States increase its investment in agricultural research by a total of $700 million per year to nurture a new “innovation ecosystem” that would leverage the best of America’s diverse science and technology enterprises for advancements in agriculture.
“Meeting these challenges will require a renewed commitment to research, innovation, and technology development in agriculture,” said Daniel Schrag, co-chair of the PCAST Agricultural Preparedness Working Group. “If we act strategically today we will gain invaluable benefits tomorrow, including enhanced food security, better nutrition, greener sources of energy, and healthier lives, while we grow the rural economy.”