IFT Comments on the USDA Roadmap for Agricultural Research, Education, and Extension provided to the Office of Research, Education, and Economics

May 15, 2009

Commentary on the USDA Roadmap for Agricultural Research, Education, and Extension provided to the Office of Research, Education, and Economics, USDA

REE-2009-0001

To: Michele Simmons
Research, Education, and Extension Office (REEO)
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Mail Stop 0114
1400 Independence Avenue, SW.
Washington, DC 20250-0114

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) is a not-for-profit international, scientific society with more than 20,000 members working in food science, technology, and related professions in industry, academia, and government. The long-range vision of IFT is to ensure a safe and abundant food supply contributing to healthier people everywhere. Thus, IFT exists to advance the science of food. Our strategic plan calls to champion research on food and emerging sciences, to foster technology development, application, and transfer, to increase funding for food-related research, and to support innovation in food science and technology. Hence, IFT appreciates the opportunity to provide comments regarding the preparation of the Roadmap for agricultural research, education and extension at USDA, published in the Federal Register on April 1, 2009. IFT offers below specific comments to USDA on various aspects of the development and implementation of the Roadmap, including responses to the questions as presented in the solicitation document.

Between 2005 and the summer of 2008, the price of wheat and corn tripled, and the price of rice climbed fivefold, forcing 75 million people into poverty worldwide. Unlike previous shocks driven by short-term food shortages, this price increase came in a year when the world's farmers harvested a record grain crop. This clearly demonstrated that population growth and its subsequent increased food demand cannot be met by current agricultural productivity, which increases less than two percent a year. Because food availability is a consequence not only of production, but of food processing, food science and technology are instrumental disciplines that affect the quantity, quality and safety of the food supply. Hence, research focused on the food system from farm-to-fork, including food science and technology, is essential to develop innovative solutions to the rising problems facing agriculture.

The world’s food supply is at a critical junction, which demands immediate attention and commitment to research. Investigation needs to address sustainable food production, processing, and its connection with public health. However, federal funding for agriculture, and thus food science, has declined over time. While funding for life science research has increased dramatically, nearly all the growth has been in the biomedical sciences. In contrast, funding for agricultural sciences, non-human biological sciences, and other non-medical life sciences have declined or remained flat. This decline of funding has occurred despite the clear relationship between food production and processing with public health through the consumption of nutritious and safe food. Thus, it is imperative that USDA emphasize the importance of research in food processing and product development, to the same or greater level as commodity production, to optimize the availability of high quality foods to sustain the global population.

Food science and technology addresses the critical relationship between the food supply and human health. Historically, the work of food scientists has played a critical role in maintaining the world’s food supply by adding value to agricultural products, optimizing productivity, and ensuring food safety and quality, while preserving natural resources. Food scientists have impacted agricultural innovation and infrastructure by solving problems that affect wellbeing through the food supply. Hence, IFT recommends that the USDA stress the benefits of funding research and innovation affecting our food system and its relationship with human health through food science and technology.

1. What types of current and future critical issues (including those affecting citizens, communities and natural resources) does agriculture face that no USDA entity could address individually?

An expert advisory panel, created by IFT in 2008, identified and prioritized current and emerging food science and technology issues that, if championed via science-based solutions, will benefit the global food supply and subsequently consumers. The panel, formed by preeminent leaders affiliated with academia, industry, government, and consulting organizations, concluded that the highest priority issue subject areas could be categorized into four major pillars:

1. Food Security/Sufficiency or Food Insecurity/Insufficiency, including Food Security (sufficiency), Ingredient Safety, Import Safety, Packaging, Nanotechnology, and Traceability

2. Sustainability, including Water Footprint of the Food System, Energy Efficiency of the Food System, Nanotechnology, and Packaging

3. Food Quality, including Models for Improving Food Quality via Physicochemical Modifications of Food Components, Nanotechnology, Packaging, and Traceability

4. Health and Wellness, including Obesity/Energetics/Food Intake Regulation, Nanotechnology, and Packaging

2. What criteria should USDA use to prioritize agricultural science (i.e., research, education, and extension) investments to address these issues?

Research is a progression that starts with new knowledge derived from basic research, and follows innovative processes and products developed from applied research. Undue emphasis or distinctions between basic (fundamental) and applied research (mission-linked) can obscure the primary focus on solving problems and accomplishing goals. IFT believes both types of research are essential. Thus, prioritization of resources based on whether problems are basic or applied can miss the most appropriate questions and constrain research that eventually gives rise to solutions.

Moreover, agricultural research needs results from the integration across disciplines that consider food production from farm-to-fork. Thus, IFT recommends that a strategic research investment spans across the entire agriculture-food-health continuum. Funding models should be restructured to foster more cross-disciplinary research collaboration, and consider long and short term projects concurrently. By doing so, agricultural research will be focused on the consumer, whose needs are linked to complex agricultural problems that encompass expertise in multiple fields including food science and technology. Land-grant institutions are well suited to address these problems because of their longstanding integration of agricultural disciplines and the infrastructure for research. USDA is encouraged to strongly support the land-grant institutions to prevent any further erosion in the ability of these programs to address important food related issues. Researchers should be encouraged to be proactive in projecting needs and developing forward-looking education and research agendas to ensure the entire food system and needs of consumers take priority over evolving problems and markets. IFT believes that drivers of funding or investment need to be fully aligned with drivers of the food system, and consumers. Therefore, multidisciplinary partnerships within publicly-funded entities, nongovernment organizations, and industry need to be explored aggressively, and fostered. IFT recommends that the Agency be encouraged to continue strengthening its current partnerships, and to pursue new research partners.

3. How might USDA better coordinate agricultural sciences among its various agencies and with its partners?

4. What are some examples where agricultural sciences are successfully coordinated for maximum benefit? Why are they successful?

5. What are some examples where agricultural sciences are not coordinated effectively? Why is coordination lacking? What are the barriers?

6. What else might USDA do to improve coordination of science; enhance USDA's ability to identify issues and prioritize investments; and elevate its role in science implementation and coordination?

Agricultural prioritization linked to measurable performance allows clear assessment upon completion of a project. The USDA assures relevance, quality, and performance of its Agricultural Research Service (ARS) through a 5 year cycle program. The cyclic development of a strategic plan ensures research relevance for the accomplishment of strategic goals. IFT commends the USDA for that critical approach to research planning, and suggests the same approach be applied to multi-agency efforts. We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments. We would be pleased to address our comments further or any questions you may have about recommendations.

Sincerely,

Sheri Schellhaass, Ph.D. President

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