Getting research on the right track

Recently the National Research Council (NRC) published an important report entitled "Critical Role of Animal Science Research in Food Security and Sustainability." The NRC is our nation's pre-eminent research body and has a long history of publishing insightful reports on science and society. Some have been highly influential while others have languished with seemingly little impact. This latest report lays out a compelling vision for the needed research in animal agriculture to sustain future U.S. and global food production systems. 

We all know that world population growth coupled with greater urbanization and global affluence will lead to higher per capita consumption of meat, dairy products, and fish. To meet this demand – and do it sustainably – will require significant research and development investment. Research will need to focus on production efficiency, environmental impact, ensuring equitable distribution of food, and engaging in meaningful communication between the animal production sector and the general public. In essence we must move beyond research that simply addresses production efficiency – as important as that is.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the animal agriculture sector contributed 40 percent of the global value of agricultural output and supported the livelihood and food security of a billion people. In the U.S., animal agriculture accounts for 60-70 percent of the total agricultural economy. Despite the tremendous importance of animal agriculture, funding for animal science research has stagnated for decades. To address the twin challenges of chronic underfunding and developing a unified vision for future research, the NRC report recommends the development of a "U.S. Animal Science Strategic Plan" under the leadership of the USDA. Whether this happens or not remains to be seen.

With two fundamental goals for setting critical research priorities – productivity and sustainability – the NRC committee has proposed these so-called "overarching recommendations" to guide future animal agriculture research:

  • Integrated research on the entire food chain rather than traditional disconnected projects.
  • Continued research to boost productivity but integrated with research on economic, environmental, and social sustainability of animal production systems.
  • Continued focus on 1) breeding and genetics, 2) nutrient requirements and feed technology, including use of waste streams from human food production, and 3) animal health with a special emphasis on sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics with greater focus on identifying alternatives.
  • Research must include socioeconomic factors, animal welfare, and potential influence of global climate change.
  • Must also close the communication gap between the public, researchers, and the food production industry.
  • Critical need to revitalize research infrastructure – develop a coherent national animal science research road map and properly fund it. The cynical side of me thinks "Good luck with this one…"

Between 2003 and 2012 funding for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture was flat. Gross underfunding of basic agricultural science has been the norm, but this NRC report is a clarion call to action if we truly want to conduct the integrated research that will be necessary to build sustainable animal production systems in the future. I strongly encourage anyone with the desire to eat nutritious and affordable food, produced sustainably, to read this report!