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Report urges cultivation of US agricultural science

Public funding could support more US research on fruits and vegetables, which often receive less attention than staple grains.

Verita, Wikimedia Commons

Agricultural research in the United States will require fresh investments and re-distribution of existing resources to address emerging challenges to the nation’s food supply, according to a report released on 7 December by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

“The US agricultural sector provides a foundation for world food stability and security, supplying most of the food aid to developing nations,” said John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and PCAST co-chair at the public release of the report. Holdren expressed the council’s concern that agricultural science had become “widely underappreciated” by the US public and scientific community in recent decades.

Public funding for agricultural research has remained relatively flat over the past 30 years, according to the report, which was prepared in response to requests from the US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and former US Department of Agriculture (USDA) official Roger Beachy.

The council called for US$700 million a year in new funding for agricultural research — including a $130-million boost to the current $120 million the National Science Foundation (NSF) spends annually on basic agricultural research. The group also recommended a budget increase for the USDA — from $265 million to $500 million a year — to award competitive research grants to universities.

“Agriculture used to attract the best and the brightest,” said Daniel Schrag, a geologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who co-chaired the study. “We should be competing with biochemistry, with molecular biology, with Earth sciences, with engineering — with any other science programme in the country.”

The council also recommended increased investments to USDA graduate and postdoctoral fellowship programmes and greater competitive grant opportunities. At present, competitive grants account for 16% of the USDA budget. By comparison, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards 80% of its funding through competitive grants.

The authors outlined several priorities for additional research — among them, emerging pathogens such as wheat stem rust Ug99, which threatens over 80% of the world’s wheat crops. Other challenges include development of drought-resistant plants to sustain agricultural yields in the face of global climate change.

The government should gradually scale back investments on research topics that are likely to be pursued by the private sector, the report suggests. For example, about one-quarter of public research funding for agriculture focuses on commodity crops such as corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice, which also attract significant private funding. Fruits, vegetables, cover crops and soil research attract considerably less private support.

At the same time, the report recommends the creation of new private–public partnerships in the form of six multidisciplinary institutes for basic agricultural research, at a cost of $25 million a year for at least 5 years. The USDA would administer these institutes, with guidance from the NSF, the Department of Energy and the NIH.

Schrag acknowledged the difficulty of carrying out the council’s recommendations when sweeping federal budget cuts seem increasingly likely.

“Asking for new money in this current fiscal environment is an extremely difficult thing, but there was no question among PCAST that the situation in agriculture warranted it,” he said. “Hopefully this will be successful.”

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