OSTP “Grand Challenges of the 21st Century; RFI”

April 15, 2010

To Whom it May Concern:

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the OSTP RFI “Grand Challenges of the 21st Century” published in the Federal Register on February 3, 2010. Founded in 1939, IFT is a nonprofit scientific society with more than 18,000 members working in food science, food technology, and related professions in industry, academia, and government. IFT's long-range vision is to ensure a safe and abundant food supply contributing to healthier people everywhere. Therefore, IFT believes that providing safe and nutritious food to enhance the health and wellness of the world's population in a sustainable manner represents a grand challenge.

Food is vital for life. A sufficient quantity and quality of food is still a serious problem in many parts of the world, while developed countries, particularly the United States, struggle with obesity. When the National Academy of Engineering put their 14 grand engineering challenges to an online vote, the third highest challenge was identified as providing “access to clean water” (only behind developing economical solar energy and providing energy from fusion). It would follow that access to safe, nutritious food should also be viewed as a challenge. Clearly, to provide safe and nutritious food to enhance the health and wellness of the world's population in a sustainable manner is a “grand challenge”.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the flagship competitive grants program of the National Food and Agriculture Institute (NIFA), has identified five “societal challenge” areas:

1. Keep American agriculture competitive while ending world hunger
2. Improve nutrition and end child obesity
3. Improve food safety for all Americans
4. Secure America’s energy future through renewable biofuels
5. Mitigate and adapt agriculture to variations in climate

In 2010, AFRI solicited applications for funding research, education, and/or extension in six areas: climate change, global food security, sustainable bioenergy, food safety, childhood obesity prevention, and foundational program.

In 1985, 1993, and 2004 IFT assembled leading food scientists to identify key challenges and research needs in the area of food science and technology (Heldman, 2004). In 2009, an IFT task force identified high-priority areas where food science research is necessary to achieve societal gains:

· Food security and sufficiency
· Sustainability
· Food quality (including safety)
· Health and wellness

It is not surprising that many of the areas identified by IFT fit within the AFRI priority areas. Within the next few months, IFT will publish a paper entitled “Feeding the World: the important role of food science and technology in food availability” that presents ways food science and technology can increase availability of safe and nutritious foods for the world. Some of those paths forward are detailed here.

Identification of Additional Grand Challenges:
In order to achieve the goal of providing safe and nutritious food to enhance the health and wellness of the world's population in a sustainable manner, scientists, engineers and others, such as economists and supply chain experts, need to collaborate. The Presidential Working Group on Food Safety and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity show that food-related issues in the United States are deserving of national attention.

Investment in food represents some of the most important gaps in the nation’s R&D portfolio. This year, the USDA NIFA AFRI program, which serves as the primary source of extramural competitive grants for researchers in food and agriculture, focused research in only a few areas. While these areas are certainly worthy of funding, entire lines of research will “dry up” as a result of the discontinued funding. A significant ripple effect will be that graduate students will not be trained in critical areas, leading to a devastating effect on the workforce and our knowledge base for years to come. Given the substantial concerns about obesity in the US, the need for well qualified food scientists is critical.

Areas for which funding has ceased and that were significant for food science include “Improving Food Quality and Value”, “Bioactive Food Components for Optimal Health”, and “Biobased products and Bioenergy Production Research”, which were funding areas in 2009. Unfortunately, food is not viewed as being related to health (although food and nutrients are vital for health), so many of the funding agencies in the federal government that support health related research do not fund food related research.

Keep American agriculture competitive while ending world hunger
While IFT believes that improvements in crop yields and animal production are desirable, in some parts of the world, up to 40% of harvests deteriorate before they reach potential consumers. Food science and technology are keys to developing interventions that will increase the ratio of food harvested to that which is consumed, with a goal being 100%. There are numerous examples of “crop improvements” that were eventually rejected by consumers because the improvement was not edible or could not be made into a food product. Examples include NASA’s soybeans for the flight to Mars. Short bean varieties were developed but a food scientist showed NASA that these varieties would not produce a tofu or other edible soy product. High lysine corn was another improved crop but never implemented among target groups because the plant breeders did not test if these varieties would make a tortilla that held together—the tortillas fell apart so consumers rejected them. High solanine potatoes kept the insects away but also consumers since the levels were toxic to humans. Food science is crucial if crops and animal products are to be effectively used by consumers. Continued research on innovative processing techniques, as well as improvements in storage and distribution of food will address issues related to food availability and will open additional markets for US food products. Additionally, reducing food waste through improvements in post-harvest processing, packaging and distribution will have a tremendous economic and environmental impact as well.

Genetic modification can be used to develop foods such as “golden rice” that is high in Vitamin A; however technologies such as this are often not universally accepted as safe. Food scientists work to deliver nutrients in ways that are socially acceptable and still scientifically sound. As an example, IFT worked on a US AID-funded project through the Academy of Educational Development to examine rice fortification technologies to deliver iron and other nutrients through various coatings and dustings of rice kernels. Fortification of various foods with deficient nutrients resulted in a phenomenal reduction of several diseases with high rates of morbidity and mortality. Fortification of salt with iodine to prevent goiter in the 1920s, milk with vitamin D to prevent rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults in the 1930s, and cereals with B vitamins to prevent pellagra (and other deficiency diseases) in the 1940s, are classical examples of the role of foods in health. A more recent illustration of the role of foods in public health is prevention of neural tube defects through fortification of flours by folic acid. There are often multiple ways to tackle food-related problems, and IFT hopes that innovation is encouraged by adequate funding for research to address food science-related issues.

Improve nutrition and end child obesity
Ensuring that foods are nutritious is a key responsibility of food scientists, working with nutritionists. Food formulation directly influences the levels of calories in the food; packaging and marketing directly influence the selection of food by the consumer. The food industry has taken several steps to make existing foods more healthful, and has worked to develop new healthful products to provide consumers with numerous healthy choices. In addition, food scientists have worked with others to improve the visibility of food labels that communicate important nutritional information.

As noted early, food scientists struggle with the dichotomy of malnutrition and obesity. The U.S. food industry, with its vast food processing resources, is uniquely positioned to address the issue. However, the science needed to develop foods for health (and security) is still evolving and more basic and applied knowledge has to be generated to enable the development of foods which address the issue of malnutrition paradox. Reformulation and the development, understanding, and application of food ingredients and components are a major part of food science and technology. Creating more healthful food products to improve nutrition and end child obesity will require substantial investment in research and development.

Improve food safety for all Americans
IFT is pleased to see the emphasis on food safety by the federal government, as illustrated by the development of the Presidential Food Safety working group as well as a dedicated “Request for Applications” in food safety through the USDA AFRI program. Because challenges exist with respect to food safety, both in domestically sourced product as well as imports consumed by Americans, IFT urges the federal government to remain vigilant in efforts to improve food safety. Further, the continued funding of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense by the Department of Homeland Security provides a critical source of funding to develop interventions to thwart intentional attacks on the US food supply.

Secure America’s energy future through renewable biofuels
The federal government has set ambitious goals for the production of renewable biofuels. A perhaps unintended consequence of using agricultural products for energy production is the impact on the choices farmers make when deciding which kinds of crops to plant. The change in availability of food crops has an impact on commodity prices, ultimately trickling down to the consumer. Because both biofuels and food are necessary, they should not be put at odds with each other.

Food production consumes a substantial amount of energy, and reducing the environmental impact of food production should be an area of priority research. The design of energy-efficient food processes and manufacturing plant operations, and generation of biodegradable packaging material, are critical. Understanding how to conduct a life cycle analysis of food production, and identifying the critical points in that cycle that can be altered to increase sustainability, are needed. An area of promising

study is non-thermal processing technologies. In addition to improved quality and sensory attributes, some studies have suggested that there is an environmental benefit to using non-thermal or alternative technologies such as high pressure processing, microwave heating, ohmic heating, and others. Concurrent with advances in understanding how these technologies affect food, research could be conducted to determine the environmental impact so that food can be produced in a sustainable way.

Mitigate and adapt agriculture to variations in climate
In addition to changes in yields that might be expected as a result of climate change, there is a concern that environmental changes will have an impact on food safety. An understanding of microbial ecology is needed to better predict the likelihood of pathogens contaminating food products (particularly produce that is minimally processed before consumption) as well as changes in the types or levels of spoilage organisms that may be present. Clearly these are new areas of research where collaboration will be needed.

Collaboration and Workforce Development
IFT is very supportive of making the achievement of grand challenges a national priority. IFT is a member of the STEM Ed coalition, and advocates for programs that stimulate interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. A strong STEM oriented workforce will improve the competitiveness of the United States in a global economy, and individuals trained in these areas will be able to solve problems that have a global impact. Workforce development needs to be heavily considered in the pursuit of grand challenges, particularly those related to food and nutrition. At the secondary school level, food science falls under both agriculture and STEM career clusters. However at the graduate level, food science is eligible for a USDA SMART grant, but students are not permitted to participate in the Optional Training Program from the Department of Homeland Security because food science is not considered a STEM field. IFT urges OSTP to examine the disciplines currently considered STEM, so as to maximize opportunities for researchers from all fields to contribute to addressing grand challenges.

Researchers in the humanities, social, and behavioral sciences can make great contributions toward the grand challenge of providing healthful, safe food to the world’s population in a sustainable way. In the area of obesity, researchers need to examine the role of decision making, personal responsibility, marketing, and economics as food choices are made in the home. Economists and policy analysts also need to examine the impact of subsidies on food price and availability, and explore the trade off between biofuels and food. Politics and economics plays heavily in challenges related to food availability in some parts of the world, particularly with the acceptance of food derived from genetically modified organisms. Policy shifts may also need to be considered. In

addition to working with engineers and environmental specialists to produce food in a sustainable way, developing the regulatory framework to market food produced under environmentally friendly conditions needs to be determined.

While funding teams and centers provide for necessary collaboration, it may be difficult for new investigators to identify potential partners. IFT would urge the federal government to establish a network of scientists and engineers. A recent email received by a USDA NIFA program leader stated “There is a real need for established and new investigators to communicate their interests, expertise, and willingness to work together on these larger research efforts. Even though I am unable to assist in this process, this doesn’t mean that one of you cannot take the lead and start up a social networking site for this purpose.” IFT would hope that the federal government would take the lead in developing these systems so that researchers can focus on developing meaningful working relationships.

IFT already has established relationships with many types of organizations that would need to collaborate to provide safe and nutritious food to enhance the health and wellness of the world's population in a sustainable manner, and can serve as convener and facilitator of the stakeholders needed to tackle this societal need. IFT also has communication outlets whereby we can reach out to additional partners and publicize the strategies and tactics needed to accomplish this grand challenge.

IFT believes in the saying “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.” Metrics are critical for ensuring progress toward grand challenges is made. The number of students entering the fields for which grand challenges are identified and job creation in these fields are clear metrics, but achieving the challenges in a specified timeframe represent the ultimate success.

Food touches the lives of all people, and it should be no surprise that providing safe and nutritious food to enhance the health and wellness of the world's population in a sustainable manner will require collaboration and input from a diversity of stakeholders. It is unacceptable that 40 years ago the United States was able to send a man to the moon but still cannot put safe, nutritious, food in the stomachs of hungry people while we struggle with obesity and other health related issues in the US. We urge the federal government to deem this a grand challenge.

Please contact William Fisher, Vice President Science and Policy Initiatives, if IFT may provide further assistance. He can be reached at 1025 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 503, Washington, DC 20036; telephone number: 202-330-4977; or email address: wfisher@ift.org.

Sincerely,

 

Marianne Gillette
IFT President


References:
Heldman, D.R. 2004. Identifying Food Science & Technology Research Needs. Food Technology. 58(12):32-34.
http://earthtrends.wri.org/features/view_feature.php?theme=3&fid=13

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