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The Perfect Storm or Opportunity? Creating Global Food Security and Public Health Benefits Requires Food and Agricultural Research

August 7, 2009
Research on agriculture and food production is one of the foundations of modern society. According to one of my colleagues, it’s a proven fact that people who eat food live longer than people who do not.

Just about everyone knows that a balanced diet can lead to better health. In the United States, we take our food – and all those benefits – for granted. We expect that our food will be easily available, safe, and affordable.

But the food supply is not so secure in other parts of the world. The United Nations estimates that today there are nearly 1 billion people who are mal-nourished in the world.

In response to this problem, on July 8, 2008, the G8 Leaders recommended that “… we will …accelerate research and development and increase access to new agricultural technologies to boost agricultural production; we will promote science-based risk analysis including on the contribution of new varieties developed through biotechnology.”

Historically, the United States has assisted countries in times of food crisis. Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “The issue of chronic hunger and food security is at the top of the agenda … The Obama Administration is committed to providing leadership in developing a new global approach to hunger.” She went on to say that “…a system of agriculture that nourishes all humankind requires more than a single breakthrough or advances in a single field. It requires a sustained and comprehensive approach. We need to create a global supply chain for food. Today that chain is broken, and we need to repair it and make it stronger.”

In spite of the Administration’s proclaimed commitment to food security, President Obama did not mention food and agricultural research in a talk he gave to the National Academy of Sciences where he enthusiastically endorsed the need for scientific advancements in research conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE) and others, but neither USDA, nor food and ag research, were mentioned.

Further analysis shows that the President’s FY 2010 budget showed no increase in funding over the 2009 figure of $201.5 million for food and agricultural research at the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the USDA competitive grants program for research on food and agriculture.

Furthermore, the USDA received zero dollars for research in the stimulus package, whereas NIH received an extra $10 billion for biomedical research.

The problem is obvious. The world needs more food, but we don’t want to pay for more food and agricultural research.

Think of the possibilities. What might happen if we doubled funding in the United States for food and agricultural research, just as we did recently for biomedical research? Properly funded, new research could provide many solutions – identify genomic-based mitigations for advancing human nutrition and food supply, developing novel disease treatments that are derived from plants and animals, create biosourced therapeutics for humans, advancing gene therapy using animal and plant models, investigate nutritionally enhanced and functional foods and probiotics, eliminate allergens in foods, and create opportunities to advance treatment of global orphan diseases through biotech-derived foods and medicines that are economical and widely available.

Who will take the leadership to see that research funding is increased? The National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research advocates enhancing federal funding for food and ag research. Many others agree – farmers, consumers, scientists, the food chain (including ag biotech, sustainable ag and organic food industries) – support an increase (some say a doubling) of funding for food and ag research.

Thankfully the U. S. Senate just passed their FY 2010 appropriations bill including $295 million for AFRI. Although this is still woefully underfunded (AFRI was authorized at $700 million) and it pales in comparison to the over $30 billion in the FY 2010 appropriations bill proposed for NIH, the $295 million in competitive grants funding for food and ag research is a good first step.

All of these things combine to form a perfect storm, or opportunity! Only a sustained commitment to food and agricultural research will take us through that storm, and provide food for the hungry and create the global food security and public health benefits we need to sustain ourselves.