On June 2, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) held a public meeting in Washington, D.C., to solicit stakeholder input to improve the development of its FY2011 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) programs. AFRI is charged with funding research, education, and extension grants that address key problems of national, regional, and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of agriculture, including farm efficiency and profitability, ranching, renewable energy, aquaculture, human nutrition, food safety, biotechnology, and conventional breeding.
The Institute of Food Technologists attended the meeting and provided both verbal and written comments, which follow.
IFT appreciates the opportunity to give stakeholder input because we, along with research universities and major food companies, are very concerned to see the lack of funding opportunities for many areas considered highly important among food scientists. While some specific areas of research in other parts of agriculture may not be funded through the current Request for Applications (RFAs), the entire discipline of food science and all of the sub-disciplines, barring food safety, have vanished. The USDA is the only federal agency that funds food. Simply put, without inclusion in the AFRI program, research on food processing, food ingredients, and other critical areas of food science will cease to exist.
The five priority areas in AFRI represent very real challenges that must be solved. Food science is key and integral to solving these problems. However, it is not currently included, at least as described by the RFAs. The likelihood of success with the identified challenge areas will be increased by fostering collaboration among all disciplines that can provide part of the solution. It’s hard to feed the world without a food scientist at the table.
Imagine a world where all food packaging was biodegradable … where everyone, everywhere had sufficient food that provided adequate nutrition and tasted good. Imagine a world where people didn’t have to worry about food resulting in acute or chronic disease, and instead ate foods that helped protect them against illness. Imagine all that food scientists can do.
By shutting food scientists out of the RFAs, you are shutting out the opportunity to translate great research at the production stage into real food on the table. What if a new variety of wheat is developed that can grow in arid environments, but you can’t bake bread with it? What if you produce sufficient food for the world, but it spoils before it reaches the hungry? What if you can change the mindset of consumers to choose healthier foods, but the diversity of healthy foods available is limited? Food scientists understand the complexity of these issues.
Other governments around the world are providing far more research funds in the area of food science than the U.S. government. With no funding opportunities in food science, entire lines of research will “dry up”. A significant ripple effect will be that graduate students will not be trained in critical areas, leading to a devastating effect on the workforce for years to come. The U.S. will lose scientific talent when academicians conduct research in other countries, top students are educated in those countries, and companies look to those countries for innovations. By neglecting food-related research, the U.S. loses its competitive edge. Lost competitiveness on a global scale results in jobs being outsourced—jobs from basic education, to manufacturing, to research, and more.
We believe that food scientists, working in cooperation with other disciplines, can make great contributions to the targeted national priorities. IFT urges NIFA to consider the benefits of including food science-related research when the RFA topics for 2011 and 2012 are fully developed, and hopes that this is a transparent process.
Although we are supportive of the approach of solving large-focused problems, we are also concerned about the use of the “continuation funding” model, and request that it be discontinued, as this severely restricts the funds available for research in the future, despite what appears, at first glance, to be an increase in funding levels for next year.
In addition, we encourage NIFA to reserve some funding for investigator-initiated ideas to fully tap the creativity and established academic capacities in our nation. Such research in food science has in the past, and can in the future, address important problems and have impact.
We ask that in future years RFAs in these areas be developed so that society may gain even more from the expertise and contributions of food science and technology.
by Will Fisher is Vice President of Science and Policy Initiatives, IFT, 1025 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 503, Washington, DC 20036 ( [email protected] ).