New report identifies 5 breakthroughs to advance food and ag sciences

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
Farm Forum

WASHINGTON – A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine identifies the most promising scientific breakthroughs that are possible to achieve in the next decade to increase the U.S. food and agriculture system’s sustainability, competitiveness, and resilience. The urgent progress needed today, given challenges such as water scarcity, increased weather variability, floods, and droughts, requires a convergent research approach that harnesses advances in data science, materials science, information technology, behavioral sciences, economics, and many other fields.

More than a third of food produced in the U.S. is unconsumed — an unacceptable loss of food and nutrients at a time of heightened global food demand. Increased food animal production to meet that demand will generate more greenhouse gas emissions and excess animal waste. The U.S. food supply is generally secure, the report says, but it is not immune to the costly and deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness or to the constant threat of pests and pathogens to crops, livestock, and poultry.

“In the coming decade, the stresses on the U.S. food and agricultural enterprise won’t be solved by business as usual – either in the field or in our current research efforts,” said Susan Wessler, Neil and Rochelle Campbell Presidential Chair for Innovations in Science Education and distinguished professor of genetics, University of California, Riverside, and co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. “At this pivotal time in history with an expanding global population requiring more from an increasingly fragile natural resource base, science breakthroughs are needed now more than ever for food and agriculture. The United States is the world’s greatest agricultural producer and bears the tremendous responsibility of implementing scientific advances to support our nation’s well-being and security, and perhaps even global stability, and the tools and resources identified in this report can ensure its success.”

The committee identified five breakthrough opportunities that take advantage of a convergent approach to research challenges and could potentially increase the capabilities of food and agricultural science dramatically. They include recommendations for a range of federal agencies, as well as federal and private funders and researchers.

• A systems approach to understand the nature of interactions among the different elements of the food and agricultural system can be leveraged to increase overall system efficiency, resilience, and sustainability. Progress is only able to occur when the scientific community begins to more methodically integrate science, technology, human behavior, economics, policy, and regulations into biophysical and empirical models. Transdisciplinary science and systems approaches should be prioritized to solve agriculture’s most vexing problems, the report says. Enticing and enabling researchers from disparate disciplines to work effectively together on food and agricultural issues will require incentives in support of the collaboration.

• The development and validation of highly sensitive, field-deployable sensors and biosensors will enable rapid detection and monitoring capabilities across various food and agricultural disciplines. Sensing technology has been used widely in food and agriculture to provide point measurements for a characteristic of interest, such as temperature, but the ability to continuously monitor several characteristics at once is the key to understanding both what is happening in the target system and how it is occurring. An initiative should be created to more effectively develop and employ sensing technologies across all areas of food and agriculture. For example, soil and crop sensors could provide a continuous data feed and alert a farmer when moisture content falls below a critical level to initiate site-specific irrigation to a group of plants, eliminating the need to irrigate an entire field.

• The application and integration of data sciences, software tools, and systems models will enable advanced analytics for managing the food and agricultural system. The food and agricultural system collects an enormous amount of data, but has not had the right tools to use it effectively, as data generated in research laboratories and in the field have been maintained in an unconnected manner, the report says. The ability to more quickly collect, analyze, store, share, and integrate heterogeneous datasets will vastly improve understanding of the complex problems, and ultimately, lead to the widespread use of near-real-time, data-driven management approaches.

• The ability to carry out routine gene editing of agriculturally important organisms will allow for precise and rapid improvement of traits important for productivity and quality. Gene editing is poised to accelerate breeding to generate traits in plants, microbes, and animals that improve efficiency, resilience, and sustainability, the report says. This capability opens the door to domesticating new crops and soil microbes, developing disease-resistant plants and livestock, controlling organisms’ response to stress, and mining biodiversity for useful genes. Furthermore, crops could be effectively modified for enhanced taste and nutritional value.

• Understanding the relevance of the microbiome to agriculture and harnessing this knowledge will improve crop production, transform feed efficiency, and increase resilience to stress and disease. Research on the human microbiome demonstrates the effect of resident microbes on the body’s health; however, a detailed understanding of the microbiomes in agriculture is markedly more rudimentary. A transdisciplinary research effort focused on the various agriculturally relevant microbiomes and the complex interactions between them would help modify and improve numerous aspects of the food and agricultural continuum. For example, understanding the microbiome in animals could help to more precisely tailor nutrient rations and increase feed efficiency.

“Realizing the vision this report recommends will require a holistic approach that combines scientific discovery, technological innovation, and incentives to revolutionize the way we approach greater food security and human and environmental health,” said committee co-chair John Floros, president, New Mexico State University. “It also will require significant public and private investments, funding that is currently inadequate to address critical breakthrough areas over the next decade. The food system of tomorrow will depend on how well we are able to prepare for resiliency today and how well we are able to build our capacity for the future.”

The committee also recommended investing in physical and cyber infrastructures, engaging non-agricultural professionals, and recruiting talented individuals into food and agriculture research.

The study was sponsored by the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit A committee roster follows.