This article is a summary of a recent IFT white paper titled “Food Research: Call to Action on Funding and Priorities” (Mohamedshah, Havlik, and Velissariou 2020), released on February 5, 2020. The report, including primary references, is available at https://www.ift.org/2020fundingwhitepaper.
Our food system has advanced immensely in safety, quality, and many other attributes, yet it is rapidly undergoing further change and is faced with tremendous challenges that require sustainable long-term solutions. These challenges include population growth and its demands on global food supply and trade; evolving consumer needs and dietary patterns to improve health; and climate, environmental, and other stressors that threaten food security. Additionally, the food industry is undergoing structural changes that are affecting established business models of innovation. Collaborative, transdisciplinary approaches and adequate investment by government, industry, and academia are essential to address these challenges. Furthermore, cutting-edge research in food science and technology that draws on other disciplines is crucial to pursuing and implementing solutions to the mounting challenges faced by the food system. In light of the growing global challenges and impact on the food system, advances in fundamental and applied research as well as education and training of professionals in food science and technology is more critical now than ever before.
The current COVID-19 crisis reveals the vulnerabilities of the food supply chain and demonstrates the need for additional public investment for research, education, and extension to better understand, address, and communicate the challenges and opportunities across the food system. Short- and long-term studies are needed to enhance the resiliency and flexibility of the entire food supply chain—farmers to consumers—to enable adoption and recovery from economic and health impacts of current COVID-19 and future crises.
A two-part editorial in 2015 in the Journal of Food Science raised concerns related to declining federal funding for research in food science and technology. Funding trends in food science have flattened for over a decade. Between 1994 and 2014, the average success rate for research awards in food science was 19%, with approximately 22 funded projects per cycle (Foegeding and Sathe 2015, Foegeding and Williams 2015). While funding for human nutrition research increased during the last several decades, federal research funding between 1985 and 2009 for food science (food processing, preservation, and other food-related technologies) decreased from 10% to 4% of the total funding for nutrition research. This level of support is not adequate to meet the ever-increasing demands for fundamental basic and applied research in food science and technology. Further, this diminished funding detrimentally impacts training of the next generation of food scientists and technologists, as the level of support is inadequate to retain high-quality graduate students.
In light of the adverse impact of decades of stagnant funding in food science and technology and the mounting challenges facing the food system, IFT and the Council of Food Science Administrators recognized the urgency for substantiating research priorities in food science and technology. IFT undertook an initiative to establish a Call to Action predicated on: 1) identifying and prioritizing of research priorities in food science and technology, particularly in the postharvest segment of the food value chain; 2) detailing the impact of insufficient funding; 3) highlighting the contributions to the U.S. economy of the agrifood sector (agriculture and food combined), particularly the food subsector; and 4) describing the state of public investment for research in agriculture and food, specifically in food science.
More than 6,500 current and former IFT members from academia, industry (those engaged primarily in research and development [R&D]), and government were invited to participate in an online survey to provide input on key research gaps/priorities to advance food science and technology and the impact of insufficient public funding in food science and technology. Key research gaps/priorities identified by over 400 members relate to the application of food science and technology and other disciplines in providing a safe, nutritious, affordable, convenient, palatable, accessible, and sustainable food supply that could help address three major current challenges: public health, food safety and quality, and food security and sustainability (Table 1).
• Public health. Diet plays an important role in reducing the risk of diet-related chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Research to develop nutritious food and beverage products can assist consumers with the adoption of a healthy dietary pattern(s) to help reduce the risk of diet-related chronic diseases. In the United States, chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are leading causes of death and disability and are drastically escalating health-care costs.
• Food safety. Food safety, in addition to nutrition, is crucial. Current regulatory and surveillance systems help ensure the safety and quality of our food supply. However, globalization of the food supply poses added challenges related to protecting food from intentional and unintentional contamination and tampering, such as microbial and chemical. The integrity of the food system can be further enhanced by investing in research to ensure the safety and quality of the food supply.
• Food security and sustainability. Food security, both in terms of quantity and quality, is a fundamental human right. To ensure availability and accessibility of sustainable safe and nutritious food for all requires investment in multidisciplinary research, including research in food science and technology. The security of our food supply is of paramount concern to the U.S. government; however, research funding to address food security primarily focuses on production agriculture, with little attention to postharvest production of food. The current global COVID-19 crisis, where many people are facing food insecurity, exemplifies the vulnerabilities of the national and global food system, demonstrating the urgency to identify approaches (short- and long-term) to improve the integrity and resiliency of the food system to withstand future crises, man-made or natural.
Members indicated that diminished research in food science would likely escalate public health challenges, driven by growing food insecurity, compromised food safety, and increased risk of diet-related preventable chronic diseases. Additionally, continued underfunding will adversely impact student enrollment, training of scientists, research capabilities of U.S. institutions, and U.S. leadership in scientific and technological advancement in agrifood, putting the United States behind developed and developing countries that are investing more substantially and consistently.
The agrifood sector, and specifically food, contributes significantly to the U.S. economy, both directly and indirectly. For example, in 2018, the estimated combined (direct and indirect) contributions of agrifood was $5.08 trillion (conservative estimates) or 24.8% of gross domestic product (GDP), with food contributing over half ($2.73 trillion) of the $5.08 trillion. Food was the third-largest contributor at 7.6% of direct GDP, trailing only the health-care and housing sectors. Additionally, food alone contributed to 20.7 million jobs, about 10 times more than agriculture (2.1 million), in 2018. The U.S. food exports ($72.6 billion) are higher compared with agriculture exports ($64.4 billion). Overall, the agrifood sector is an essential part of the U.S. economy, and food in particular is a significant contributor in terms of GDP, taxes, employment, and trade.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the primary federal agency that funds research in food and agriculture. The National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under USDA provides leadership and funding for programs to advance food and agriculture-related sciences, including food science. NIFA’s programs are intended to strengthen the country’s capacity to meet demands for safe, nutritious, convenient, and globally competitive food products. NIFA’s food science initiatives focus on food safety and quality (“USDA/NIFA” n.d.). Although NIFA funding has increased steadily, it is not sufficient to address the range or complexity of the established Farm Bill priorities, resulting in insufficient support for the myriad of proposals/requests that are recommended for funding by agency review panels.
Despite the substantial contribution of agrifood and food to the U.S. economy, public investments for research in agrifood and food, in particular, are relatively low as a percentage of the economic contributions. In 2018, public investment for research in food ($0.1 billion) was seven times lower compared with agriculture ($0.8 billion). Even though private investment in food ($9.9 billion) and agriculture ($10.8 billion) was much higher compared with public investment, it is not a substitute for public investment.
Historically, the public sector played a prominent role in supporting foundational basic and applied research that creates the building blocks for major innovations in agrifood, whereas private R&D is primarily focused on the development of commercially useful applications. The dominance of U.S. federal funding in support of agrifood R&D has dropped dramatically in the past decade. In contrast, between 1990 and 2013, countries such as China and India have steadily increased their funding in agrifood research, with China surpassing all other countries since 2010.
Considering the significant contributions of the food sector to the U.S. economy and the importance of research in food science and technology, IFT’s Call to Action includes a paradigm change in public, private, and public-private investments for research in food to unlock scientific and technology solutions, build a robust talent pipeline, and maintain global competitiveness. IFT’s Call to Action identified the need for the following:
• “Increasing and prioritizing USDA’s funding for agrifood research, with a primary focus on food,
• Authorizing additional federal agencies to fund interdisciplinary research in food, and
• Enhancing public-private partnerships for agrifood research, with a focus on research in food” (Mohamedshah, Havlik, and Velissariou 2020).
For almost two decades, IFT has expanded efforts to increase its visibility and offer an independent scientific perspective on food-related policy issues, via outreach, education, and communication. IFT recognizes the critical need to raise awareness and educate policy makers and other stakeholders on pressing food science issues, an understanding of food science and technology, and the valuable role they play in public policy development. Collaboration with coalitions, such as the National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research (NCFAR) and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Coalition (AFRI), enables IFT to be a part of a considerably larger voice promoting increased funding for research in agriculture, food, and nutrition, through a variety of activities, including visits to Capitol Hill and USDA, and holding seminars for Hill staffers.
The white paper has been instrumental in advancing IFT’s efforts to raise awareness and urge policy makers and federal agencies to recognize the significant contributions of the food sector to the U.S. economy and the associated risk with chronically underfunded research in food. Thus far, IFT’s advocacy activities related to the white paper include the following:
• Disseminated the white paper to several media channels and to attendees at the annual event of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research;
• Presented key findings of the white paper to the director and chief of staff of NIFA, other USDA staff, and members of Congress who serve on various committees and caucuses, including the House Committee on Agriculture; House Committee on Energy and Commerce; House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; Congressional Food Safety Caucus; Congressional Blockchain Caucus; Congressional STEM Caucus; and Congressional Agriculture Research Caucus; and
• Promoted the white paper to organizations, such as NCFAR, AFRI Coalition, Riley Memorial Foundation, and other food and nutrition organizations.
IFT intends to continue advocating by partnering with other organizations, meeting with the members of Congress, and initiating a dialogue with other interested stakeholders and other federal agencies, in addition to the USDA. IFT strongly believes that there is value in advocating at the state, district, and local level, as appropriate, and we hope that the white paper will serve as a useful resource for members to advocate for research funding in food science and technology with their respective representatives.
Foegeding, A. and S. Sathe. 2015. “Federal Funding for Food Science – Challenges and Opportunities.” J. Food Sci. 80 (11): iii–iv.
Foegeding, A. and J. Williams. 2015. “Federal Funding for Food Science – A Tale of Discovery and Careers.” J. Food Sci. 80 (10): iii–iv.
Mohamedshah, F., S. Havlik, and M. Velissariou. 2020. “Food Research: Call to Action on Funding and Priorities.” Institute of Food Technologists. ift.org/2020fundingwhitepaper.
USDA/NIFA. n.d. Food Science. https://www.nifa.usda.gov/topic/food-science.