Food Science In US Is Underfunded; IFT Wants Hike In Public, Private Research

Food research in the US is chronically underfunded, and continued underfunding will likely risk public health, food safety, food security, and erode the US talent pipeline and global competitiveness, according to a white paper released earlier this month by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).

The white paper calls for a paradigm shift to increase investment in food research by the public and private sectors as well as public-private consortia.

US agri-food research is funded by several agencies, including the USDA, which is the major contributor for funding agri-food research, while the FDA, National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) allocate substantially smaller amounts, the white paper explained.
USDA’s research funding flows through three intramural research agencies — the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS) and NASS — and one extramural agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

NIFA funds research through land-grant universities, state agricultural experiment stations, and other institutions at the state and local levels, the white paper noted. NIFA funds extramural competitive grants through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) in support of US science and technology innovation to meet demands for safe, nutritious, convenient, and globally competitive food. NIFA also takes part in training the next generation of the food and agriculture workforce.

AFRI was established in the 2008 farm bill to advance science in food and agriculture. AFRI grants support research, education, and extension activities in six farm bill priority areas; however, the farm bill doesn’t mandate a defined amount for each priority area.

Although the authorized funds awarded to AFRI have increased steadily, they are not sufficient to address either the range or complexity of the established farm bill priorities, the white paper said. This outpacing has resulted in insufficient support for all proposals/requests that are recommended for funding and rated as outstanding, high priority, and/or medium priority by agency review panels.

Historically, the federal government played a prominent role in producing new innovations and technologies for agriculture, but over time, agricultural input industries grew large enough to make considerable investments in research and development, the white paper said. Industry R&D is focused primarily on the development of commercially useful applications, whereas the public sector is the primary source for much of the basic to applied research that creates the building blocks for major innovations in food and agriculture.

In the past decade, the dominance of federal funding in support of agri-food R&D has “changed dramatically,” according to the white paper. Between 1970 and 2008, the share of total agri-food R&D conducted by the public sector remained at around 50 percent, but by 2013 it dropped to under 30 percent. The decline in public R&D is attributed to reduced government spending as well as a rise in private R&D spending.

While the rise in private funding may offset the decline in federal funding, it is not a perfect substitute because the expenditures fall in different research areas, the white paper noted. The public and private sectors mostly invest in different areas of research; therefore, private funding is complementary and not a substitute for federally funded agri-food research.

Research Shortcomings
The white paper includes IFT-led survey data regarding research priorities in food science and the impact of unsufficient funding. The survey was conducted in the first quarter of 2019, and had two purposes: to identify key research gaps in advancing food science; and to determine the impact of unsufficient public funding in food science.

The key research gaps identified in the IFT survey were clustered under three major current challenges:
Public health: these gaps pertain to sensory and nutrition, personalization, and consumer and customer awareness.

Food safety and quality: these gaps pertain to interdisciplinary food safety; contamination prevention and control; data analytics, internet of things, and robotics for prediction and prevention; and integrated food safety systems.

Food security and sustainability: these gaps pertain to security and accessibility, technology breakthroughs to reduce food system inefficiencies; and sustainability.
Impacts of insufficient funding in food science fall into three areas, the white paper noted:

Economy: Impacts include reduced and/or diminishing returns in agriculture production efficiencies; reduced ability to scale innovative technologies and ingredients, and reduce food loss and waste; increased burden on natural resources; decrease in global competitiveness; and increased risk to national security.

Public health: Impacts include continued escalation of public health and related health care costs; and decrease in scientific/technological advances and leadership in food safety, quality, and nutrition.

Talent and research pipeline: Impacts include a decline in student enrollment in food science and related fields; a reduction in the talent pipeline across industry, academia, and government; fewer job opportunities in food science; and a decline in breakthrough and interdisciplinary research.

More Food Science Funds Needed
There is urgency for policymakers to recognize the significant contributions of the food sector to the US economy and the risk that is associated with chronically underfunded food research, the white paper said.

The Institute of Food Technologists’ call to action is for a paradigm shift to drive innovation and value creation, feed the talent pipeline, and maintain global competitiveness.

IFT has identified the need for:
• Increasing and prioritizing USDA’s funding for agri-food research, with a primary focus on food.
• Authorizing additional federal agencies to fund interdisciplinary research in food.
• Enhancing public-private partnerships for agri-food research, with a focus on food research.

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