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Three agricultural research priorities to feed the planet

Critical focus areas for future agriculture research are food security, ‘one health’ and stewardship.

By Mary M. Beck

What are key animal research priorities that would make the most difference and have the most impact in the critical areas facing the U.S. and global community?

Looking forward to 2050, there will be an estimated 9 billion people on the planet. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates there is a need to double food production for that population. About 70 percent of the increased production will have to be technology based. Is U.S. agriculture prepared to produce its share of the food needed to fulfill those needs? There is serious concern, in fact, over the decline in both the number of agricultural scientists being trained and the investments in science and technology research.

In order to meet global food demands in a sustainable way, investments in science are critically needed to increase the efficiency with which natural resources are utilized.

The U.S. is on a trajectory to lose out to China as a global leader by the early 2020s in research and development.

Agricultural research needs identified before the National Academy of Sciences

On March 10, an open session was held by a committee under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to explore a number of perspectives to inform recommendations for animal science research funding.

Speakers covered national, industry, NGO and international aspects of animal science research going forward.

My presentation was one of two in the panel entitled, “National Perspective on the Future of Animal Science Research,” and was based on a retrospective of the 2012 Farm Animal Integrated Research (FAIR) conference, of which I was co-program chair in March 2012 with Jerry Weigel, a consulting animal nutritionist.

The purpose of FAIR 2012 was to identify key animal research priorities that would make the most difference and have the most impact in three critical areas facing the U.S. and global community looking forward to 2050 with an estimated 9 billion people on the planet. With this population estimate, there is a need to double food production, of which 70 percent will have to be technology based, according to the FAO.

Summary of FAIR 2012 findings

The three focus areas identified as themes for the FAIR 2012 conference were food security, ‘one health’ and stewardship.

The FAO estimates that a 73 percent increase in meat consumption and a 58 percent increase in dairy consumption worldwide by 2050 will occur, as developing countries emerge from poverty and demand improved diets. Meeting the increased demand for animal protein within the constraints of the earth’s resources will require substantial improvements in the efficiency of resource usage.

Compounding the challenge of increased production with limited resources is the diversion of food and feed crops into bioenergy, effectively taking land and resources out of the food security equation. All of these factors point to the need for increased investments in science to increase production capacity and efficiency.

‘One health’ approach

The “one health” concept has evolved in response to the complex interactions between animal and human health, but in its broadest sense addresses also ecological health and the interconnectedness of all aspects. Zoonoses – diseases that pass from animals to humans – are an example of such interrelationships. It is estimated that 58 percent of currently recognized human pathogens are zoonotic and that 75 percent of the diseases that have emerged in the last three decades are zoonotic; domestic animals account for about 20 percent of the annually emerging zoonotic infectious diseases. Research is critically needed to ensure animal health and human health in light of criticisms of microbial resistance to antibiotics and the possible role of animal agriculture in this issue.

Need for sustainable food production

In order to meet global food demands in a sustainable way, investments in science are critically needed to increase the efficiency with which natural resources are utilized. Water quality and quantity are major issues, as is climate change and the impacts that animal production may have on climate.

In beef production systems, 10 percent less feed energy, 30 percent less land, 14 percent less water and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy, were required in 2009 to produce the same amount of beef that was produced in 1977. Over the same time period, total carbon emissions decreased by 18 percent because of improvements in management systems. In order to double food production by 2050, even greater strides in resource utilization will be necessary.

Is U.S. agriculture ready to meet future demands?

Larry Summers, Harvard economist and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, in a 2014 interview with NPR expressed concern about the deferred maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure, a drop in the U.S. educational system, and a decline in investments in science and technology research. In a 2010 report on workplace projections, the USDA estimated that there were 10 percent fewer graduates in agriculture, forestry, natural resources, and veterinary medicine in 2008 than in 2002.

In December 2012, the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) noted the importance of human capital for future agricultural success. The report cited a shortage of graduate students in agriculture and recommended increasing USDA and NSF funding for graduate and post-doctoral fellowships. The report further noted a seriously lagging source of funding for agricultural research, despite a 10:1 economic return on monies spent.

Historically, the economic impact of agriculture (crop and livestock) has been tremendous for the U.S (Figure 1). Of the total depicted from 1998-2010, the sales receipts of livestock are almost half those of food and fiber and feed crops. This is despite a seriously disproportionate level of research funding for animal versus plant sciences during the same time period (Figure 2).

 

Of the total depicted from 1998-2010, the sales receipts of livestock are almost half those of food and fiber and feed crops.

Of the total depicted from 1998-2010, the sales receipts of livestock are almost half those of food and fiber and feed crops.

Research funding for animal sciences was disproportionately low compared to funding for plant sciences.

Research funding for animal sciences was disproportionately low compared to funding for plant sciences.

The PCAST report of December 2012 recommended that funding for agricultural research be increased from $265 million to $700 million.

The report noted a seriously lagging source of funding for agricultural research, despite a 10:1 economic return on monies spent.

Animal research lags in proposed Agricultural Research Service funding

Figure 4 shows the breakdown in the proposed Agricultural Research Service (ARS) funding for FY2015 by area from the Presidential budget. It is clear that animal research continues to lag far behind crops in resource allocation.

Finally, according to the Battelle Institute’s R&D Magazine, the U.S. is on a trajectory to lose out to China as a global leader by the early 2020s in research and development.

The $325 million proposed in the 2015 Presidential budget compares to China’s agricultural research budget of $475 million in 2012, with total ag programs budgeted at $73 billion.

The $325 million proposed in the 2015 Presidential budget compares to China’s agricultural research budget of $475 million in 2012, with total ag programs budgeted at $73 billion.

Animal research continues to lag far behind crop research in resource allocation in the proposed ARS funding.

Animal research continues to lag far behind crop research in resource allocation in the proposed ARS funding.

Additional PCAST recommendations to counter this trend include increasing competitive grants and incentives for innovation; increasing basic science funding for agriculture; and increasing research infrastructure.


Committee identifies agricultural research needs before the NAS

Approximately 160 participants from industry, academia and government were invited to attend the open committee session on agriculture research needs before the National Academy of Science. Top graduate students from across the U.S. served as recorders. Recommendations from the sessions were forwarded to constituents in Congress and USDA for the purpose of informing policy makers, including drafters of the Farm Bill.

Sponsors of the session included:

  • The United States Department of Agriculture
  • National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
  • Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy
  • National Pork Board
  • Tyson Foods Inc.
  • Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges
  • U.S. Poultry & Egg Association
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

 

Conclusions presented to the NAS committee

Based upon all of the evidence, the conclusions presented to the National Academy committee were as follows:

  • The current funding level for agricultural research in general, and animal agriculture in particular, is woefully insufficient, both with regard to addressing the complex, pressing issues associated with the projected population growth and the need to double food production, as well as to sustaining the pipeline of scientists and maintaining the infrastructure.
  • It is imperative to increase support for animal sciences research to improve efficiency of production, ensure adequate animal, human and ecological health and further reduce the carbon footprint of food production.
  • There is likely still time to rectify the situation if a budget initiative is undertaken to reverse the inequities in funding priorities.
  • If not, the U.S. will lose its competitive edge globally and jeopardize food security at home and abroad.

 

Dr. Mary M. Beck is professor and head of Poultry Science, 100 Hill Poultry Science Bldg. Mississippi State, MS 39762; Email [email protected]; Phone 1+662.325.5430.

 

 

 


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