ISU President Steven Leath: Prioritize Agricultural Research

August 3, 2015

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Iowa State University President Steven Leath on why the United States must elevate agricultural research as a national priority.

By the year 2050, the world population is projected to increase by roughly one third, to 9.6 billion. This creates what I believe will be the greatest challenge in history: how to produce as much food in the next 35 years as we have produced in the previous several thousand years to feed so many people.

Part of the answer lies here at home. The United States must elevate agricultural research as a national priority to ensure new and better ways to provide a safe and plentiful food supply.

And make no mistake, our status as a global leader in agricultural productivity and innovation is at risk. In 2009, China tripled its investment and overtook the United States to become the global leader in public spending on agricultural research. Our investments in agricultural research have declined 16 percent in the past decade.

Look at the federal funding allocation: For every dollar dedicated to USDA research, more than $14 dollars is invested in the National Institutes for Health (NIH). The USDA’s research budget is about $2.4 billion, while at NIH it exceeds $30 billion. It’s not agricultural research versus medical research; the point is that proper nutrition and access to high-quality food could help prevent many diseases and other medical problems.

For example, the United States Renal Data System indicates in 2011, Medicare paid more than $26 billion for dialysis for individuals with kidney failure, often caused by chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Better nutrition can help prevent these conditions. Through agricultural research, scientists are discovering ways to improve our food supply and make foods more nutritious, better tasting and more affordable and accessible.

Another important factor to consider in agricultural research funding is the country’s ability to effectively respond to crises such as the avian influenza outbreak that has swept through the country in recent months.

In Iowa, we know about this first-hand. Iowa is the leading egg producer in the nation, producing one of every five eggs consumed in the United States. The avian flu outbreak has resulted in the loss of nearly 30 million egg-producing chickens, or about a third of Iowa’s flock. This has caused egg prices to rise, but because we have experts in place—supported by capacity funding—we have been able to mitigate the consequences of the outbreak.

Iowa State University dedicates vast resources and expertise to discover solutions to the challenges of 2050. Agricultural and bioscience research are among our core competencies. Significant discoveries are happening, including:

  • Methods to apply big data analytics to develop plant varieties best suited to specific climates and plants that are resistant to drought and disease.
  • A new generation of fuels created from non-food biomass and bio-based alternatives to petrochemicals for the manufacture of new industrial materials, vaccines and medicines.
  • Food packaging sensors that can detect pathogens so contaminated foods can be destroyed before they are shipped or consumed.
  • Dietary discoveries that can help prevent obesity, colon cancer and malnutrition.
  • Methods for using biomaterials and adapting agricultural practices to purify water and preserve soil resources.

Iowa State and other land-grant institutions are uniquely equipped to provide the foundational research and technology to enhance the nation’s global status in agriculture, forestry and natural resource protection. But the challenge of elevating the importance of agricultural research will require the involvement of the non-land grant universities as well.

The President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology has recommended boosting federal funding for agricultural research by $700 million as a starting point. Agriculture, food and our natural resources must be at the forefront of our national agenda. It will make a difference for the United States and for our growing world.

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