For nearly a century, scientific advances have fueled progress in U.S. agriculture. As one of the most productive sectors of the U.S. economy, producers have achieved dramatic increases in output with simultaneously reduced inputs (such as land, labor, and chemicals) (Wang et al., 2018). Today’s farmers produce food for far more people using less land than in previous generations due to yield gains from advances in plant and animal breeding, mechanization, agricultural chemicals, and irrigation, among other improvements to agricultural production (Clancy et al., 2016). These advances have been the direct result of sustained historical investments in food and agricultural research, providing substantial social return on public investment with an estimated marginal payoff of $32.1 per dollar invested (Alston et al., 2011). Food and agricultural innovations have enabled the delivery of safe and abundant food domestically and supported a trade surplus in bulk and high-value agricultural commodities (USDA-ERS, 2018).
In the near future, the strength and responsiveness of the U.S. food and agricultural system will be tested. Recent analyses have warned that as a consequence of the growing world population, agricultural production worldwide will have collective difficulty in meeting the global demand for food and fiber (Valin et al., 2014). Achieving the higher level of productivity needed—itself a formidable task—will not be sustainable without innovative solutions to challenges posed by shortages of arable land and water, the degradation of ecosystems, and the negative impacts of climate change.
Several scientific groups have issued reports that describe these chal-
lenges in the context of the U.S. food and agricultural system and have identified opportunities to address them relative to the potential contributions of specific disciplinary or agency missions (see Box 1-1). This report builds on the opportunities identified in those reports and many others, including the White House report on U.S. Agricultural Preparedness and the Agri-
cultural Research Enterprise (PCAST, 2012) and the National Research Council reports A New Biology for the 21st Century (NRC, 2009); Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century (NRC, 2010); Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond (NRC, 2014); and Critical Role of Animal Science Research in Food Security and Sustainability (NRC, 2015). From the perspective of addressing the biggest problems facing the U.S. food and agricultural system, this report explores the availability of relatively new scientific tools emerging across all disciplines that could benefit the food and agricultural disciplines. This report identifies the most promising scientific breakthroughs with the potential to have the greatest impact on food and agriculture and that are possible to achieve in the next decade.
2.1 Global Food System
The United States is a critical player in the global food system and is expected to be competitive in the global marketplace. A major challenge for the future is the increasing worldwide demand for food, fuel, and fiber that comes with a global population expected to reach 8.6 billion by 2030 and 9.8 billion people by 2050 (UN DESA, 2017). To meet demand in 2050, published estimates of required percentage increases in food production range from 25 to 110 percent, based partially on date of publication but also on parameters assessed, which reflect the very complex nature of the food system (Tilman et al., 2011; OECD-FAO, 2012; Ray et al., 2013; Valin et al., 2014; Hunter et al., 2017). Planning for the lower estimates could prove disastrous if the higher estimates turn out to be more accurate. Total production of meat products will need to increase worldwide by 70 percent to meet the needs of a growing global middle class with an increasing desire for animal-source foods (Robinson and Pozzi, 2011). The United States has expanded agricultural and food production and exports to help meet the demand for increased food production. Many U.S. farmers depend on export markets to expand the demand for products and support production at scales sufficient to cover costs. Similarly, the ability to export animal products, which requires freedom from reportable diseases, opens markets for U.S. production. Expanded markets for plant and animal products allow for increased scale and specialization to take advantage of new market opportunities, both of which can have a positive effect for agricultural and food producers and consumers and the overall economy. At the same time, the expanding global economy calls for increased preparation to address possible threats from abroad, including foreign animal
diseases, plant pathogens, invasive pests, and trade disruptions. Increased trade and changes in the agricultural and food sector are likely to have winners and losers. It will be essential to understand the increasingly global markets, account for costs of transitions to markets and new technologies, and develop appropriate mechanisms to account for changes to support a sustainable and resilient food and agricultural system.
2.2 Plateau in Productivity
Worldwide demand for agricultural products will continue to increase, but it will become increasingly more difficult to meet those demands in the future due to an impending U.S. productivity plateau (Andersen et al., 2018). Improvements in yield potential for grain are already near their theoretical upper limit (Ort et al., 2015). Yield curves (particularly of cereal crops) are beginning to level off in some regions: approximately 30 percent of global rice, wheat, and maize production might have reached their maximum possible yields in farmers’ fields (Grassini et al., 2013), and yields for rice, wheat, maize, and soybeans across 24-39 percent of the world show yields that never improve, stagnate, or collapse (Ray et al., 2012). For example, yield stagnation is occurring in the main cereal-growing areas across China, with rice yields stagnating in 53.9 percent of the counties tracked in the study, followed by 42.4 percent for maize, and 41.9 percent for wheat (Wei et al., 2015). The stagnation of productivity growth of the world’s major crops (Ray et al., 2012; Grassini et al., 2013; Ort et al., 2015) serves as a warning sign that current methods for increasing crop productivity can only be exploited to a certain point, and new methods will be required to address the need for increased productivity.
2.3 Food Waste and Food Safety
On the flip side of productivity concerns is the problem of food waste. Refrigeration is considered one of the most important historical breakthroughs in agriculture because it reduces food spoilage and waste and it enhances food safety. However, further innovation to reduce and repurpose food waste is needed because the United States wastes approximately $278 billion annually, which is enough to feed nearly 260 million people (Buzby et al., 2014; Bellemare et al., 2017). Accounting for resource use and efficiencies within a systems context can help to identify opportunities for optimal waste management. Producers also need to focus on food safety, given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 47.8 million illnesses, more than 125,000 hospitalizations, and about 3,000 deaths in the United States each year (Scallan et al., 2011a,b).
2.4 Resource and Environmental Constraints
Available land, water, and fertile soil are increasingly limited resources that will constrain the ability to improve productivity using today’s production methods. Pushing resources past their limits risks permanent damage to the resources and to the surrounding ecosystem. The use of resource-intensive, high-input farming across the world has caused soil depletion, water scarcities, widespread deforestation, and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions (FAO, 2017). Groundwater pumping for agriculture in California has caused land sinkage, aquifer compaction, and earthquakes (Sneed and Brandt, 2015; Kraner et al., 2018). If current water use continues, the Ogallala Aquifer, which serves 30 percent of U.S. irrigation needs, will be 60 percent depleted by 2060 (Steward et al., 2013).
Although some farm practices, such as conservation tillage and no-till cropping, have been partly effective at reducing erosion (Nearing et al., 2017), soil loss continues. In 2012, an estimated 6 tons per acre of soil (roughly 1 percent of soil per acre) were lost from Iowa cropland alone, polluting rivers and streams with sediments and fertilizers. Sediment removal from waterways alone costs more than $40 billion per year (ASPB, 2013). Biotic natural resources are also at risk. The loss of native pollinators for reasons not entirely understood, together with the problems facing managed colonies of European honeybees, is estimated to cost $24 billion in lost yields annually (White House, 2014).
Global climate change adds to the challenges for the U.S. food and agricultural system. For most crops and livestock, the effects of climate change on U.S. agriculture will be increasingly negative as variable and extreme weather events, elevated temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, prolonged dry periods, and other climate changes affect yields, with impacts varying depending on location and crop (Hatfield et al., 2014). In 2017, climate-related disasters in the United States included droughts, floods, freezes, wildfires, and hurricanes, which resulted in more than $5 billion in agricultural losses (NCEI, 2018). Climate stresses along with the recent emergence of new pests and diseases—such as citrus greening and new strains of viruses affecting swine and poultry—are imposing new demands on the nation’s scientific capacities.
2.5 Changing Consumer Needs
Domestically, consumer food preferences are changing. Consumers are more acutely aware of food choices impacting their health and the environment, and large retailers are responding by distinguishing their products in the marketplace and emphasizing values such as sustainability, animal welfare, and treatment of labor in their supply chains. There is a national
interest in creating market opportunities for producers to increase healthful, diverse, and affordable food choices. Consumer advocates in public health seek healthier food, citing the poor diets of Americans as one of the preventable causes of chronic disease that accounts for hundreds of billions of dollars in annual health care costs (CDC, 2017).
2.6 Declining Public Funding
The success of U.S. agriculture to date is in large part attributable to a foundation of basic and applied knowledge built in the past century by the land grant university system, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other federal agencies. Publicly funded research, which has produced many significant advances in agriculture, has diminished in the past 10 years due to sharp declines in the share of public investments in food and agricultural research. From 2003 to 2013, the budget for U.S. agricultural research and development (R&D) fell from $6.0 billion to $4.5 billion (Clancy et al., 2016). During the same period, private-sector funding increased by 64 percent, overtaking publicly funded research in 2010 dollars (see Figure 1-1). Both public and private funding would show even slower growth since 2009 (and even a decline for public investment) when dollars are indexed to account for the real costs of research (Heisey and Fuglie, 2018). Historically, public funding to the agricultural sector has tended to focus on advances in science and innovation, while private-sector funding has aimed at commercially useful production processes and products (Clancy et al., 2016; Heisey and Fuglie, 2018). Evidence today indicates that the two funding streams are to be viewed as complementary in the U.S. agricultural innovation system and private-sector investment does not crowd out public investment, especially in the United States (Wang et al., 2013; Fuglie and Toole, 2014; Clancy et al., 2016; Heisey and Fuglie, 2018). There is evidence, however, that public and private investments tend to go toward different sectors in research. Private research and development spending has leveraged the public research and focused on areas of commercially useful technologies that are easy to patent and protect with intellectual property protection and offer greater profit opportunities for investors. Sectors with relatively high private investment in research include food and feed manufacturing, plant systems and crop protection (especially genetically modified crops, agricultural chemicals), farm machinery and engineering, and animal health (especially veterinary pharmaceuticals) (Clancy et al., 2016).
Interest in growing consumer demand for new and diverse products, in applications of biotechnology and information sciences, and in intellectual property right protection has spurred more rapid increases in private investment (Heisey and Fuglie, 2018). However, recent mergers in some
agricultural industries (e.g., seed and agricultural chemicals) have led to concerns about the potential for placing farmers at a disadvantage through higher input prices, reliance on existing supply networks or technical ties to related products from the input suppliers, and for dampening incentives for the private firms to innovate (Wang et al., 2013; MacDonald, 2017). The trend of declining public research funding is concerning because it has negative implications for generating foundational research that is critical for science breakthroughs.
Major scientific advances in the past decade have paved the way for new opportunities in food and agriculture. For instance, molecular biology has provided substantial advances over the past two decades that enable more precise and diverse changes in crops. These capabilities allow for the development of new food sources and traits that increase resistance to a broader array of insect pests and diseases; increase yields, nutrient-use, and water-use efficiencies; and increase the ability to withstand weather extremes. Knowledge of plants and their associated microbes at the eco-
system level (the phytobiome) also holds promise for innovation. New technologies, innovations, and insights from fields outside of mainstream agricultural disciplines are also empowering producers. In 2016, farmers accounted for approximately 19 percent of commercially used unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as drones), because they are seeking cost-effective ways to identify disease and weeds and determine field conditions (Hogan et al., 2017; Hunt and Daughtry, 2017). Nanotechnology offers improved capabilities to (1) sense and monitor physical, chemical, or biological properties and processes (to ultimately improve the sustainability of food production); (2) control microbes (to improve food safety and minimize food waste); and (3) create new materials (to monitor and improve animal health) (Rodrigues et al., 2017). Poultry producers are implementing computerized approaches such as artificial intelligence to fine-tune their strategies for feeding chickens and monitoring their health while reducing labor and feeding costs (Ahmed, 2011; Hepworth et al., 2012). Certified-organic lettuce is being grown in soil-free systems in urban and peri-urban environments (Dewey, 2017), and the number of local farmers’ markets across the nation continues to grow (Low et al., 2015). Food and agricultural research advances will need to integrate innovations to simultaneously address water scarcity, soil health, food waste, pests and diseases, climate variability, and overall system sustainability.
The research directions described in this report depend on assimilating cutting-edge developments from allied fields—such as computing, information science, machine learning, materials science and electronics, genomics and gene editing, and behavioral and cognitive science—to achieve solutions to overarching and complex problems faced by agriculture. Leveraging the advances from other disciplines implies a need for the food and agricultural sciences to attract and train research talent in those areas. Some of the research approaches identified focus on systems-level discovery that will require regional or national cooperation and planning, in addition to a multidisciplinary effort. If successful, these systems approaches will produce essential information that will be the basis for new knowledge to inform decision making at different scales and tools to implement those decisions.
The trends described in the foregoing section set the stage for the interest of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, in partnership with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), along with professional societies, commodity groups, and farmer organizations to propose the need for a strategic vision from the agricultural science community that articulates the greatest opportunities within the field, and the potential pathways that will lead to a new generation of scientific
advancement. The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy all agreed to support an endeavor of this nature in conjunction with the SoAR Foundation, FFAR, and their other partners. There has been a collective interest in an exercise that might begin a tradition of a “decadal survey” for food and agriculture in laying out research priorities, a long-standing practice used in some fields of science to guide the programmatic focus of federal research agencies in 10-year increments. With decadal surveys being instrumental to fields such as space studies in prioritizing research needs for the next 10 years, the intent is that a study such as this would be useful in informing strategic planning and discussions on food and agricultural research.
Responding to the call for such a study, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) convened an ad hoc study committee to provide a broad new vision for food and agricultural research by outlining the most promising science breakthroughs over the next decade (see the Statement of Task in Box 1-2).
5.1 Committee and Information-Gathering Meetings
The National Academies convened a committee of 13 experts with collective expertise and experience in various disciplines. The collective expertise of the committee allowed it to address plants, animals, microbes, food science, food safety, human nutrition, soil, water, climate, ecology, pests, and pathogens, as well as landscape and/or watershed systems, agricultural economics, transdisciplinary fields (sustainability, biodiversity), and emerging technological applications at the frontiers of agriculture (nanotechnology, biotechnology, remote sensing, data mining, machine learning, modeling, robotics) (see Appendix A for the biographical sketches of the committee members).
The committee held several meetings and webinars as part of the information-gathering process (see Appendix B for the open session meeting agendas). A broad solicitation was initially sent to scientific societies and stakeholder groups asking individuals to identify research that would advance science and promote solutions and opportunities in food and agriculture, with the responses viewable on IdeaBuzz, an interactive online discussion platform (see Appendix C for the IdeaBuzz submission contributors and a summary of the ideas submitted). Based on some of those responses, the committee identified focal areas of research and invited a large panel of experts to assist the committee at a 3-day public meeting in describing major opportunities to advance science, identify knowledge gaps, prioritize research barriers to overcome, and articulate a strategy for moving forward (see Appendix B for the “Jamboree” agenda and meeting participants). It was recognized early on that a transdisciplinary approach was needed to address the complexities and interdependencies of the food and agricultural system; thus, a diverse community of scientists was invited from both the traditional agricultural disciplines and allied fields.
As part of its charge from the sponsors, the following criteria were provided to assist the committee in identifying the most promising scientific breakthroughs in food and agriculture:
- An emphasis on identifying transformational research opportunities to address key challenges in food and agriculture;
- Recognition that the complexity of most food and agriculture challenges requires transdisciplinary and integrated approaches to the development of lasting solutions;
- The value of harnessing insights from the frontiers of scientific disciplines and communities not traditionally associated with food and agriculture;
- The importance of involving stakeholders of all kinds in the process and of raising public awareness of the meaning and significance of this scientific discussion; and
- A compressed time frame (relative to typical decadal surveys) to draw together diverse communities, explore ideas, analyze proposed goals, and produce consensus recommendations for the strategy.
5.2 Scope of the Charge
The committee recognized early on that it had to place limitations on the scope of its study. The food and agricultural system encompasses everything from production through processing and distribution, and it would have been impossible to examine and address all aspects of the system in this report. Instead, the committee focused its efforts on parts of the system that require attention and are challenging yet hold the most promising opportunities for scientific breakthroughs in the near future. This report is not intended to provide a roadmap to span the entire spectrum of food and agricultural research, but rather to suggest a strategy to capitalize on several key potential science breakthroughs for transformational change.
By identifying the most challenging issues in food and agriculture, the committee delineated boundaries for the study and determined that certain areas were outside the scope of consideration for science breakthroughs. These include topics such as biodiversity, biofuels, food distribution and equity, food access and insecurity, and fundamental human nutrition science. For areas such as human nutrition and obesity, the committee did not attempt to address those topics because other groups have already described strategies and roadmaps for nutrition research (ICHNR, 2016); however, the committee acknowledges that a diverse, nutritious food supply is an integral goal of the food and agricultural system. Also, the committee recognizes that the U.S. food system exists in a global context, but limited its focus to U.S. issues for determining priority areas and targeting its recommendations to U.S. researchers, policy makers, and stakeholders.
In looking toward the next decade, the committee identified major goals for food and agricultural research to include (1) improving the efficiency of food and agricultural systems, (2) increasing the resiliency of agricultural systems to adapt to rapid changes and extreme conditions, and (3) increasing the sustainability of agriculture. Efficiency (specifically, technical and allocative efficiency) refers to the ability to obtain a maximum level of output from available inputs (resources such as energy, water, labor, and capital) and at lowest possible cost (Wang et al., 2015; Shumway et al., 2016). Resilience is defined as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and successfully adapt to adverse events” (NRC, 2012; p. 1). It may refer to the viability and adaptability of individual plant and animal species that are cultivated and consumed by human populations, and it may also describe certain properties of the food system as a whole. Sustainability refers to the ability to meet society’s need for food without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (UC Davis, 2018). More specifically, USDA defines sustainable agriculture as
an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long-term: (1) satisfy human food and fiber needs; (2) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends; (3) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; (4) sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and (5) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole. (U.S. Code Title 7, Section 3103)
Integrating approaches and technologies across various disciplines is essential, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality and increasing the quantity of food to sustainably meet our needs.
To achieve the major goals of efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability, improvements are needed to address the most challenging issues across the food system. The most challenging issues were derived from the common nature of important research challenges identified by food and agricultural scientists and reiterated by the committee, and 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.
This report identifies opportunities to boost the performance of the U.S. food and agricultural system, reduce its impact on the environment, help it expand in new directions, and increase its resilience in the face of environmental uncertainty. Based on the previously noted challenge areas, the committee explores seven specific areas in which such advances could be made:
- Crops (Chapter 2)—The advent of more precise gene-editing technologies opens new avenues for achieving the goals of increasing crop productivity while decreasing inputs and improving resilience. The chapter discusses the need for new traits, facile transformation technology, and dynamic crops where responses to environmental challenges can be turned on or off.
- Animal Agriculture (Chapter 3)—Decades of R&D have dramatically improved the efficiency of animal production over the past century, but additional investment is critical to sustainably address the expected twofold increase in animal products. The chapter also examines issues related to animal health well-being and animal-source food alternatives.
- Food Science and Technology (Chapter 4)—The postharvest food sector ensures that raw agricultural products are converted to a safe, nutritious, sustainable, and affordable food supply that is readily available to all. This chapter examines issues related to protecting and enhancing food quality, safety, and appeal while simultaneously reducing food loss and waste.
- Soils (Chapter 5)—Maintaining and properly managing fertile soils is a critical need to ensure agricultural productivity. This chapter discusses soil sustainability, soil quality, nutrient availability, and the soil microbiome.
- Water-Use Efficiency and Productivity (Chapter 6)—Fresh water is a finite resource. Meeting increasing demands for food, fuel, and fiber can only be accomplished with increased water efficiency. This chapter examines opportunities to improve the use of data analytics, improve plant and soil properties, and capitalize on the use of controlled environments for agriculture.
- Data Science (Chapter 7)—Data science can be better harnessed to improve aspects of the food system. This chapter examines the opportunities and advancements in data science and information technologies on the horizon for the food and agricultural sectors.
- A Systems Approach (Chapter 8)—The food system operates in the context of a complex system with many actors and components. This chapter examines the need for better understanding of the various systems and components as they relate to a functional food and agricultural enterprise.
The final chapter (Chapter 9) presents the strategy for 2030 along with the five breakthrough areas and the overarching study recommendations. Chapter 9 also discusses crosscutting issues for future consideration, including research infrastructure, societal dynamics, and education and workforce needs.
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