For nearly a century, scientific advances have fueled progress in U.S. agriculture to enable American producers to deliver safe and abundant food domestically and provide a trade surplus in bulk and high-value agricultural commodities and foods. Today, the U.S. food and agricultural enterprise faces formidable challenges that will test its long-term sustainability, competitiveness, and resilience. On its current path, future productivity in the U.S. agricultural system is likely to come with trade-offs. The success of agriculture is tied to natural systems, and these systems are showing signs of stress, even more so with the change in climate. Water scarcity, increased weather variability, floods, and droughts are examples of stresses on food and agricultural production. More than one-third of the food produced is unconsumed, an unacceptable loss of food and nutrients at a time of heightened global food demand. Increased food animal production to meet greater demand will generate more greenhouse gas emissions and excess animal waste. The U.S. food supply is generally secure, but is not immune to the costly and deadly shocks of continuing outbreaks of foodborne illness or to the constant threat of pests and pathogens to crops, livestock, and poultry. U.S. farmers and producers are at the front lines and will need more tools to manage the pressures they face.
In the coming decade, stresses on the U.S. food and agricultural enterprise are unlikely to be resolved by farmers, the market, input suppliers, or by current public- and private-sector research efforts if business as usual prevails. Approaches focused mainly on making incremental fixes to
problems that arise from complex influences—some biological and physical, some man-made—are resistant to simple solutions. The food system is vast, complex, and interconnected. The “wicked” problems—intractable problems with many interdependent factors that make them difficult to define or solve—will require a radically different approach to understand and uncover solutions that can only be found when explored beyond the traditional boundaries of food and agricultural disciplines. Broader perspectives are needed to provide a better view for optimizing the food and agricultural system. Acquiring this perspective means reframing problems and employing emerging tools to identify and address key points of intervention in the system.
This report identifies innovative, emerging scientific advances for making the U.S. food and agricultural system more efficient, resilient, and sustainable. An ad hoc study committee appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine was guided by a Statement of Task1 to explore the availability of relatively new scientific developments across all disciplines that could accelerate progress toward those goals. The committee identified the most promising scientific breakthroughs that could have the greatest positive impact on food and agriculture, and that are possible to achieve in the next decade (by 2030). The opportunities summarized in this report highlight novel approaches for food and agricultural sciences in innovating for the future.
2. RESEARCH STRATEGY FOR 2030
2.1 Major Goals and Key Research Challenges
Over the course of its study, the committee held discussions with members of the scientific community to identify the most challenging issues facing food and agriculture and the best research opportunities to address them. In the next decade, the major goals for food and agricultural research include (1) improving the efficiency of food and agricultural systems, (2) increasing the sustainability of agriculture, and (3) increasing the resiliency of agricultural systems to adapt to rapid changes and extreme conditions. These goals derive from the common nature of key research challenges identified by food and agricultural scientists, which include the following:
- Increasing nutrient use efficiency in crop production systems,
- Reducing soil loss and degradation,
- Mobilizing genetic diversity for crop improvement,
- Optimizing water use in agriculture,
- Improving food animal genetics,
- Developing precision livestock production systems,
- Early and rapid detection and prevention of plant and animal diseases,
- Early and rapid detection of foodborne pathogens, and
- Reducing food loss and waste throughout the supply chain.
In the past, it has been more common to examine problems in a defined space or discipline for reasons related to practicality and greater ease of management, and that approach has been effective at addressing distinct issues that require specific knowledge in a domain. The urgent progress needed today to address the most challenging problems requires leveraging capabilities across the scientific and technological enterprise in a convergent research approach. The 2014 National Research Council report Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond (see p. 1) describes convergence as
an approach to problem solving that cuts across disciplinary boundaries [and] integrates knowledge, tools, and ways of thinking from life and health sciences, physical, mathematical, and computational sciences, engineering disciplines, and beyond to form a comprehensive synthetic framework for tackling scientific and societal challenges that exist at the interfaces of multiple fields.
This means that merging diverse expertise areas stimulates innovation in both basic science discoveries and translational applications. Food and agricultural research needs to be broadened to harness advances in data science, materials science, and information technology. Furthermore, integrating the social sciences (such as behavioral and economics sciences) to correctly frame problems and their solution space is essential, as the food and agricultural system is as much a human system as a biophysical one.
2.3 Science Breakthroughs and Recommendations
The committee identified five breakthrough opportunities that could dramatically increase the capabilities of food and agricultural science. The recommendations that follow will require a shift in how the research community approaches its work, and initiatives for each of the breakthroughs will require robust support.
Transdisciplinary Research and Systems Approach
Breakthrough 1: A systems approach to understand the nature of interactions among the different elements of the food and agricultural system can be leveraged to increase overall system efficiency, resilience, and sustainability. Progress in meeting major goals can occur only when the scientific community begins to more methodically integrate science, technology, human behavior, economics, and policy into biophysical and empirical models. For example, there is the need to integrate the rate and determinants of adopting new technologies, practices, products, and processing innovations into food and agricultural system models. This approach is required to properly quantify the shifts in resource use, market effects, and response, and to determine benefits that are achievable from scientific and technological breakthroughs. Consideration of these system interactions is critical for finding holistic solutions to the food and agricultural challenges that threaten our security and competitiveness.
Recommendation 1: Transdisciplinary science and systems approaches should be prioritized to solve agriculture’s most vexing problems. Solving the most challenging problems in agriculture will require convergence and systems thinking to address the issues; in the absence of both, enduring solutions may not be achievable. Transdisciplinary problem-based collaboration (team science) will need to be facilitated because for some, it is difficult to professionally gravitate to scientific fields outside of one’s expertise. Such transitions will require learning to work in transdisciplinary teams. Enticing and enabling researchers from disparate disciplines to work effectively together on food and agricultural issues will require incentives in support of the collaboration. The use of convergent approaches will also facilitate new collaborations that may not have occurred when approached by researchers operating in disciplines in separate silos. Transdisciplinary problem-based collaborations will enable engagement of a new or diverse set of stakeholders and partners and benefit the food and agriculture sector. Leadership is key to making team science successful, as scientific directors need a unique set of skills that includes openness to different perspectives, the ability to conceptualize the big picture, and perhaps most importantly, a talent for uniting people around a common mission. These qualities are not always natural for scientists, so providing professional development opportunities to foster leadership in the transdisciplinary model is critical.
There are many examples of programs that already require transdisciplinary work: for example, grants provided by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) and the request for proposals outlined in the 2018 Sustainable Agricultural Systems competitive grants program administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural and
Food Research Initiative. The NSF INFEWS and most recent USDA grants on Sustainable Agricultural Systems have relatively larger budgets that can support convergent team science. However, many of the standard grants requiring “transdisciplinary” approaches do not provide enough funding to support team science so the incentives for transdisciplinary science are still lacking. For convergence to truly be productive, financial incentives are needed to encourage grant applicants to step outside their comfort zones and to establish deep connections among subject matter experts from a variety of arenas.
Breakthrough 2: The development and validation of precise, accurate, field-deployable sensors and biosensors will enable rapid detection and monitoring capabilities across various food and agricultural disciplines. Historically, sensors and sensing technology have been used in food and agriculture to provide point measurements for certain characteristics of interest (e.g., temperature), but the ability to continuously monitor several characteristics at once is the key to understanding both what and how it is happening in the target system. Scientific and technological advances in materials science, microelectronics, and nanotechnology are poised to enable the creation of novel nano- and biosensors to continuously monitor conditions of environmental stimuli and biotic and abiotic stresses. The next generation of sensors may also revolutionize the ability to detect disease prior to the onset of symptoms in plants and animals, to identify human pathogens before they enter the food distribution chain, and to monitor and make decisions in near real time.
Recommendation 2: Create initiatives to more effectively employ existing sensing technologies and to develop new sensing technologies across all areas of food and agriculture. These initiatives would lead to transdisciplinary research, development, and application across the food system. The attributes of the sensor (e.g., shape, size, material, in situ or in planta, mobile, wired or wireless, biodegradable) would depend on the purpose, application, duration, and location of the sensors. For example, in situ soil and crop sensors may provide continuous data feed and may alert the farmer when moisture content in soil and turgor pressure in plants fall below a critical level to initiate site-specific irrigation to a group of plants, eliminating the need to irrigate the entire field. Likewise, in planta sensors may quantify biochemical changes in plants caused by an insect pest or a pathogen, alerting and enabling the producer to plan and deploy immediate site-specific control strategies before infestation occurs or damage is visible. Biosensors for food products could indicate product adulteration or spoilage and could alert distributors and consumers to take necessary action.
Data Science and Agri-Food Informatics
Breakthrough 3: The application and integration of data science, software tools, and systems models will enable advanced analytics for managing the food and agricultural system. The food and agricultural system collects an enormous amount of data, but has not had the right tools to use it effectively. Data generated in research laboratories and in the field have been maintained in an unconnected manner, preventing the ability to generate insights from their integration. Advances and applications of data science and analytics have been highlighted as an important breakthrough opportunity to elevate food and agricultural research and the application of knowledge. The ability to more quickly collect, analyze, store, share, and integrate highly heterogeneous datasets will create opportunities to vastly improve our understanding of the complex problems and, ultimately, to the widespread use of near-real-time, data-driven management approaches.
Recommendation 3: Establish initiatives to nurture the emerging area of agri-food informatics and to facilitate the adoption and development of information technology, data science, and artificial intelligence in food and agricultural research. Maximizing the knowledge and utility that can be gained from large research datasets requires strategic efforts to provide better data access, data harmonization, and data analytics in food and agricultural systems. The challenges of handling massive datasets that are highly heterogeneous across space and time need to be addressed. Data standards need to be established and the vast array of data needs to be more findable, interoperable, and reuseable. There is a need to increase data processing speeds, develop methods to quickly assess data veracity, and provide support for the development and dissemination of agri-food informatics capabilities, including tools for modeling real-time applications in dynamically changing conditions.
Blockchain and artificial intelligence, including machine-learning algorithms, are promising technologies for the unique needs of the food and agricultural system that have yet to be fully developed. Development of advanced analytic approaches, such as machine-learning algorithms for automated rapid phenotyping, will require better platforms for studying how various components in the food system interact. Application of these approaches will require investment in infrastructure to house massive numbers of records, and a means by which those records can be integrated and effectively used for decision-making purposes. A convergence of expertise from many disciplines will be needed to realize the potential of these opportunities.
Genomics and Precision Breeding
Breakthrough 4: The ability to carry out routine gene editing of agriculturally important organisms will allow for precise and rapid improvement of traits important for productivity and quality. Gene editing—aided by recent advances in genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics—is poised to accelerate breeding to generate traits in plants, microbes, and animals that improve efficiency, resilience, and sustainability. Comparing hundreds of genotypes using omics technologies can speed the selection of alleles to enhance productivity, disease or drought resistance, nutritional value, and palatability. For instance, the tomato metabolome was effectively modified for enhanced taste, nutritional value, and disease resistance, and the swine genome was effectively targeted with the successful introduction of resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus. This capability opens the door to domesticating new crops and soil microbes, developing disease-resistant livestock, controlling organisms’ response to stress, and mining biodiversity for useful genes.
Recommendation 4: Establish initiatives to exploit the use of genomics and precision breeding to genetically improve traits of agriculturally important organisms. Genetic improvement programs in crops and animals are an essential component of agricultural sustainability. With the advent of gene-editing technologies, targeted genetic improvements can be applied to plant and animal improvement in a way that traditional methods of modification are unable to achieve. There are opportunities to accelerate genetic improvement by incorporating genomic information, advanced breeding technologies, and precision breeding methods into conventional breeding and selection programs. Encouraging the acceptance and adoption of some of these breakthrough technologies requires insights gained from social science and related education and communication efforts with producers and the public. Gene editing could be used to both expand allelic variation introduced from wild relatives into crops and remove undesirable linked traits, thereby increasing the value of genetic variation available in breeding programs. Similarly, incorporating essential micronutrients or other quality-related traits in crops through gene-editing tools offers an opportunity to increase food quality and shelf life, enhance nutrition, and decrease food loss and food waste. These technologies are similarly applicable to food animals, and possible targets of genetic improvements include enhanced fertility, removal of allergens, improved feed conversion, disease resistance, and animal welfare.
Breakthrough 5: Understand the relevance of the microbiome to agriculture and harness this knowledge to improve crop production, transform feed efficiency, and increase resilience to stress and disease. Emerging accounts of research on the human microbiome provide tantalizing reports of the effect of resident microbes on our body’s health. In comparison, a detailed understanding of the microbiomes in agriculture—animals, plants, and soil—is markedly more rudimentary, even as their functional and critical roles have been recognized for each at a fundamental level. A better understanding of molecular-level interactions between the soil, plant, and animal microbiomes could revolutionize agriculture by improving soil structure, increasing feed efficiency and nutrient availability, and boosting resilience to stress and disease. With increasingly sophisticated tools to probe agricultural microbiomes, the next decade of research promises to bring increasing clarity to their role in agricultural productivity and resiliency.
Recommendation 5: Establish initiatives to increase the understanding of the animal, soil, and plant microbiomes and their broader applications across the food system. Transdisciplinary efforts focused on obtaining a better understanding of the various agriculturally relevant microbiomes and the complex interactions among them would create opportunities to modify and improve numerous aspects of the food and agricultural continuum. For example, understanding the microbiome in animals could help to more precisely tailor nutrient rations and increase feed efficiency. Knowing which microbes or consortia of organisms might be protective against infections could decrease disease incidence and/or severity and therefore lower losses. Research efforts are already under way to characterize the food microbiome in an effort to produce a reference database for microbes upon which rapid identification of human pathogens can be based. In plant sciences, research priorities are being established that focus on engineering various microbiomes to promote better disease control, drought resistance, and yield enhancement. Characterization of interactions between the soil and plant microbiomes is critical. The soil microbiome is responsible for cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and many other key nutrients that are required for crop productivity, and carries out several other key ecosystem functions impacted in largely unknown ways by a changing climate. Enhanced understanding of the basic microbiome components and the roles they play in nutrient cycling is likely to be critical for ensuring continuing and sustainable crop production globally.
2.4 Promising Research Directions
The committee explored important research directions to address key research challenges by disciplines or categories. Among the most promising research directions are those described in Box S-1. These are noted as important opportunities because of their potential for transforming food and agriculture and because new scientific developments make them possible in the near term. Although these research directions have focused targets, their broader objectives with respect to the research challenges are interconnected and can be pursued synergistically. The breakthrough initiatives recommended earlier would catalyze the success of the research directions in Box S-1.
3. FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS
The science breakthroughs alone cannot transform food and agricultural research, as there are other factors that contribute to the success of food and agricultural research. Such factors include the research infrastructure, funding, and the scientific workforce. Other considerations include the social, economic, and political outcomes of various approaches.
3.1 Research Infrastructure Considerations
Conclusion 1: Investments are needed for tools, equipment, facilities, and human capital to conduct cutting-edge research in food and agriculture. Addressing agriculture’s most vexing problems in a coherent manner will require investments in research infrastructure that facilitate convergence of disciplines on food and agricultural research. These could include physi-
cal infrastructure for experimentation as well as cyber infrastructure that enable sharing of ideas, data, models, and knowledge. Investments in our knowledge infrastructure are needed to develop a workforce capable of working in transdisciplinary teams and in a convergent manner. Mechanisms are also needed to facilitate building private–public partnerships and engaging the public in food and agricultural research.
Conclusion 2: The Agricultural Experiment Station Network and the Cooperative Extension System deserve continued support because they are vital for basic and applied research and are needed to effectively translate research to achieve impactful results in the food and agricultural sectors. The agricultural sciences are grounded in the basic sciences but have an eye toward the applied; this has historically been facilitated by state agricultural experiment stations, as well as by extension and outreach efforts. Personnel and facilities with these functions allow scientists to translate laboratory-based findings into real-world products and processes that are most relevant, ultimately reaching key stakeholders and end users. Those stakeholders include industry, regulatory agencies, farmers and ranchers, and the general public. The recognition that scientists need to collaborate with stakeholders and translate basic research into useful and applicable results for the good of society is a fundamental value of the agricultural sciences. Recognizing and reinforcing that value through the provision of resources is essential for integrating agricultural scientific breakthroughs into the fabric of everyday life.
3.2 Funding Considerations
Conclusion 3: Current public and private funding for food and agricultural research is inadequate to address critical breakthrough areas over the next decade. There is a rapidly emerging necessity for food security and health to merit national priority and receive the funding needed to address the complex challenges in the next decade. If a robust food system is critical for securing the nation’s health and well-being, then funding in both the public and private sectors ought to reflect this as a priority.
In the past century, public funding for food and agricultural research has been essential for enabling talented U.S. scientists to conduct basic scientific research and provide innovative solutions for improving food and agriculture. However, in the past decade, the United States has lost its status as the top global performer of public agricultural research and development (R&D). Unless the United States reverses this trend and invests, the United States will fall behind other countries in terms of agricultural growth. In fiscal year 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allocated $18.2 billion for competitive research grants compared to USDA, which was appropriated only $325 million for competitive research grants (less
than 2 percent of the NIH’s amount), a budget that was less than half of the congressionally authorized amount. The current level of federal funding for food and agricultural research has thus been inadequate. Breakthrough science needed to assist the food and agricultural enterprise to thrive in the future will require a significant investment. More will be required to sustain the level of coordination and collaboration needed to address the increasingly integrative, expansive, and visionary research required to ensure future security and competitiveness.
Although private R&D is not a substitute for public R&D funding, private foundations and industry can provide some research funding that is complementary to public funding in the U.S. agricultural innovation system. Innovative business models can be more widely employed for engaging researchers. For example, venture capital funding for start-up companies, which are well known in the tech industry, are providing record sources of investment in food and agricultural research. There are new institutions and mechanisms of financing research and of implementing innovations induced by research that offer the potential to expand funding (e.g., the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research). However, these sources alone are insufficient to achieve the goals laid out in this report. In order for the U.S. agricultural enterprise to capitalize on the integrative, expansive, and visionary tools of research now being actively pursued by many other industries (e.g., sensing technologies, wireless communication, machine learning), a commitment to a major investment is needed now to ensure their relevant application to food and agriculture.
3.3 Education and Scientific Workforce
Conclusion 4: Efforts to renew interest in food and agriculture will need to be taken to engage non-agricultural professionals and to excite the next generation of students. Vast opportunities are available for nontraditional agricultural professionals to be involved in food and agriculture. However, there may be barriers to their involvement, such as misperceptions about the sophistication of agricultural technology and the lack of sustained funding for building transdisciplinary agricultural research teams that include non-agricultural professionals and scientists from other disciplines to work in food and agricultural sciences.
A robust workforce for food and agricultural research will require talented individuals who are proficient in the challenges facing the food system along with an understanding of the opportunities to think outside the box for innovative approaches. Recruiting talented individuals into food and agricultural research will require a demonstration and shift in perception that food and agriculture can be innovative.
3.4 Socioeconomic Contributions and Other Considerations
Conclusion 5: A better understanding of linkages between biophysical sciences and socioeconomic sciences is needed to support more effective policy design, producer adoption, and consumer acceptance of innovation in the food and agricultural sectors. The successful application of scientific innovation in the field depends on the willingness and ability of stakeholders to successfully apply and use new products and processes; it also depends on whether they view high-tech, site-specific approaches as economically or ecologically beneficial. There is a critical need to better understand the best means and methods for effective technology development and integration in production processes, with input from both the public and private sectors. Better understanding of the political economy, behavioral and choice processes related to both adoption and use of the technological innovation, and acceptance and perception of new products will be required to support the effective design of policies and application of the research innovation. For example, digital information from remote sensing devices may be inputs into a new decision support system to assist agricultural workers in making choices about field practices or animal handling. However, workers will need sufficient training and motivation to respond to expected and unexpected outcomes and uncertainty (e.g., animal response to treatment or extreme weather events). Lessons from behavioral sciences may help support behavioral change and training requirements.
The successful implementation of scientific advances also requires other important considerations to be taken into account. Policies on land or input use, environmental impact, animal welfare, and food-handling practices can have significant near- and long-term impacts on agricultural and food sustainability. Some policy or technology changes may have unintended consequences in the system and require closer examination of system interactions, including human behaviors related to adoption and use of new inputs, products, and processes. Insights from behavioral sciences can help inform the policy designs and reduce the costs of change, inform technological adoption in the field (e.g., design of conservation or tillage applications, or provision of product information to consumers), and address issues of product acceptance and consumer trust in the food system.
4. CLOSING REMARKS
At this pivotal time in history with an expanding global population requiring more from an increasingly fragile natural resource base, science breakthroughs are needed now more than ever for food and agriculture.
As the world’s greatest agricultural producer, the United States bears the tremendous responsibility of implementing scientific advances to support our nation’s well-being and security, and perhaps even global stability. The U.S. scientific enterprise is willing to rise to address such challenges; the tools and resources identified in this report can ensure its success.