A recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found the U.S. agricultural system is unprepared to meet environmental challenges, including climate change. The White House report recommended increased public investments in agricultural science and rebalancing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) research portfolio. The report also called for the creation of public-private agricultural “innovation institutes” to address environmental challenges such as water use, pests and pathogens, the environmental footprint of agricultural practices, bioenergy, and maintaining food production in the face of climate change.

Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for Environment and an author on the report, emphasized the need for, and benefit derived from, taking immediate action: “If we act strategically today we will gain invaluable benefits tomorrow, including enhanced food security, better nutrition, greener sources of energy and healthier lives, while we grow the rural economy.”

Research for the report was carried out by a presidentially appointed group of leading scientists and engineers, and co-chaired by Schrag and Barbara Schaal, vice president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Seven challenges were identified in the report, notable among them climate change, including effects of gradual changes (i.e. rising summer temperatures) and unpredictable events (i.e. weather extremes). These can alter pest lifecycle and range, and increase soil aridity, among other important changes, creating difficult growing conditions.

Other environmental challenges detailed in the report include managing new and invasive pests and pathogens; reducing water usage through the design of new plant varieties and better irrigation; reducing dependence on fertilizers, pesticides, and other polluting products; and producing the next generation of biofuels.

The report highlights underfunding as an obstacle to addressing present and future agricultural challenges. The proportion of federal agricultural research funds awarded through a competitive process is far below that of other agencies, and federal dollars are presently allocated in a way that underfunds some research areas—such as reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint—while overlapping with private-sector funding in others—such as commodity crop research.

The report recommends the government increase agricultural research investments by $700 million a year. This should include an increase to the National Science Foundation’s budget for basic agricultural science from $120 million to $250 million, and raising the current funding level for USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative from $265 million to $500 million. The report also calls for the establishment of six multidisciplinary institutes tasked with focusing on the seven identified challenges, and recommends $150 million a year be set aside for that purpose.

 


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