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The world’s food supply is at a critical junction, which demands immediate attention and commitment to research. According to FAO, by 2050, we need to increase the world’s food supply by 70% to feed the anticipated 9 billion people. Investment in food represents some of the most important gaps in the United States’ R&D portfolio.
While the priority areas identified by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (USDA/AFRI) do represent very real challenges that must be solved, the relevance and flexibility of the AFRI program from IFT and food scientists’ perspective is a weak link in the agriculture-food-health continuum. AFRI continues to emphasize traditional investments, such as production agriculture, neglecting the relevance of postharvest food processing. This disproportionate emphasis results in increased production of food and ignores the quality of food needed for proper nutrition and health.
The lack of funding in food science continues despite the clear relationship between food production and processing with public health through the consumption of nutritious and safe food. Through food science and processing, these commodities are converted into foods that are consumable, convenient, nutritious, tasty, affordable and available year round. Thus, it is imperative that USDA emphasize the importance of research in food science to the same or greater level as commodity production to optimize the availability of high-quality foods that are nutritious and safe to eat.
USDA is the only federal agency that funds food research. There are no other agencies that support fundamental research in food chemistry, food physics, food biology, and food technology. 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. Thus, graduate students are not trained and skilled food scientists are not available for the food industry or academia.
It’s hard to feed the world without a food scientist at the table.
Scientific and technical achievements throughout the food system—from agriculture and food manufacturing to preparation in the home—allow most people in the developed world to have ready access to a diverse, abundant supply of food that is safer, tastier, more nutritious, more convenient, and relatively less expensive than would otherwise be the case. Many people in the developing world, however, where a substantial portion of food produced is lost, are not able to make choices from such abundance. Further advances in science and technology are critical to successfully meet the daunting challenges ahead in feeding the growing world population, especially in those areas of greatest need.
Ensuring that foods are nutritious is a key responsibility of food scientists and nutritionists. Food formulation directly influences the amount of calories and nutrients in the food, and packaging helps consumers make informed choices about healthy foods. Food scientists work to deliver nutrients in ways that are socially acceptable and still scientifically sound.
Food scientists struggle with the dichotomy of malnutrition and chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. The U.S. food industry, with its vast food processing resources, is uniquely positioned to address the issue. However, the science needed to develop healthy foods is still evolving and more basic and applied knowledge has to be discovered. Creating more healthful food products to improve nutrition and prevent childhood obesity will require substantial investment in research and development.
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 its efforts to improve food safety. 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.
Food production consumes a substantial amount of energy, and reducing the environmental impact of food production should be a research priority. The design of energy-efficient food processes and manufacturing operations is critical. Additionally, reducing food waste through improvements in postharvest processing, packaging, and distribution will have a tremendous economic and environmental impact as well.
Today and in the future, the food system must be flexible and resilient, consumer driven, and sustainable, and it must secure the environment and natural resources and assure the health and wellness of an increasing population. Food science and technology can help us advance the food system, minimize risks, maximize benefits, and deliver safe, nutritious, and abundant food supply to the world.
To accomplish those goals, society must invest in basic and applied research and education and outreach. With science and technology solutions available to address specific issues throughout the food system, our ability to feed a growing population in a sustainable way, while safeguarding both human and planet health, looks not only possible, but also promising.
William Fisher is Vice President, Science &
Policy Initiatives, IFT, Washington, DC