Postharvest: Agricultural Research Funding Is Critical

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Can support for agricultural research survive inside the beltway? This question was posed by Dr. Roger Beachy, director of the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at a recent colloquium at the University of California-Davis. It is well accepted that the investments made in agricultural research over the past 150 years have yielded tremendous returns.

Agriculture productivity in the U.S. is second to none. But can we continue to be the best and to meet the challenges of the 21st century without a continued and strong commitment to agricultural research and education?

According to Beachy, the challenges in the 21st century will be great, including food security, food safety, human nutrition and health, bioenergy, and climate change. The need for continued investments in agricultural research to drive innovative developments to meet these challenges is critical, and yet the budget for NIFA, and USDA in general, is insufficient. Why, despite the many successes resulting from investment in agricultural research programs, have we been unable to convince Congress to increase research funding? Dr. Beachy believes the problem is the lack of a uniform, harmonious message from stakeholders to Congress on the importance of agricultural research in general.

A Stronger Message

I agree that we need a stronger message to Congress and to the public about the many benefits of agricultural research. It is important to recognize that the majority of Congressional constituents live in urban areas and have little direct contact with agriculture. If we hope to elicit increased support for agricultural research, we need to speak to issues of concern to the urban population. Top issues might include 1) sustainable and organic food systems, 2) national security, and 3) human health.

The increasing interest in local foods, organic foods, and sustainable systems has served to increase awareness of agricultural systems for parts of the population. To successfully adopt these approaches requires a greater understanding of plant and animal biology and their interactions with the environment and hence, more research. In addition, strategies to reduce postharvest losses are essential to sustainable agricultural systems to prevent waste of resources expended during production.

Maintaining the viability of U.S. agriculture is a matter of national security, in my opinion. It is essential that the U.S. have the ability to feed its population from food produced within its borders. Research funding is essential to assure continued innovation that will maintain the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture. Food security, particularly in developing nations, is strongly linked to peace and is a key to U.S. diplomacy. Enhancing the stability of nations around the world is in the interest of our own national security.

Finally, human health is an issue that affects every citizen. Skyrocketing rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes indicate that our lifestyle and eating habits in the U.S. are unsustainable. Consumers know they should eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer fatty foods. What are the barriers that prevent healthy diets? If we improve the flavor of our fruits and vegetables, will this encourage greater consumption? What about convenience? Would consumption increase if fruits and vegetables were more convenient to eat? The baby carrot and fresh cut salad stories would indicate the answer is “yes.”

By focusing our messaging about the reasons why the average U.S. citizen should care about funding for agricultural research, including improvements in agricultural sustainability and organic products, national security, and human health, perhaps we will be able to continue to advance U.S. agriculture and maintain its competitiveness for the next 150 years.

Elizabeth J. Mitcham, Ph.D., is Director of the Postharvest Technology Center and Extension specialist and pomologist with the Department of Pomology at the University of California-Davis, specializing in postharvest handling of fruit and nuts.

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