Expert Report

Frontiers in Agricultural Research: Food, Health, Environment, and Communities (2002)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

The focus of the report is on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and how it should refocus its $2 billion annual research budget to reflect changing public values and needs. It's emphasis should shift from increasing food and fiber production to frontier issues such as the impact of globalization on U.S. agriculture, diet and health, food safety, environmentally sound farming alternatives and the quality of life in rural communities. It goes on to discuss the need for high-level leadership to support new directions in food and agricultural research.

Key Messages

  • Agricultural research will be anticipatory, strategic, collaborative, cost-effective, and accountable to a broad client base. Agricultural research will engage relevant biophysical and socioeconomic disciplines in a systems approach to address new priorities.
  • Agricultural research will support agriculture as a positive economic, social, and environmental force and will help the sector to fulfill ever-evolving demands. These include further gains in food and fiber production and such other benefits as enhanced public health, environmental services, rural amenities, and community wellbeing. USDA's REE agencies will provide leadership in fostering this concept.
  • Challenge 1. Globalization of the food economy. The research frontiers: (1) Evaluate the implications of globalization for US agriculture and agricultural-research priorities; (2) Improve agricultural productivity and product quality while optimizing resource use; (3) Evaluate the economic, social, health, and environmental effects of agricultural technologies and practices.
  • Challenge 2. Emerging pathogens and other hazards in the food-supply chain. The research frontiers: (1) Reduce the risks of bioterrorism; (2) Improve microbiologic food safety; (3) Understand and minimize the hazards of food allergens and toxicants; and (4) Improve understanding and management of plant and animal diseases.
  • Challenge 3. Enhancing human health through nutrition. The research frontiers: (1) Advance research on bioactive food compounds; (2) Elucidate genetic mechanisms of human health and nutrition; (3) Improve understanding of food-consumption behavior and its links to health; and (4) Improve the nutrient content of foods.
  • Challenge 4. Improving environmental stewardship. The research frontiers: (1) Reduce pollution and conserve natural resources; (2) Advance environmentally sound alternatives; (3) Deliver new environmental benefits; and (4) Integrate leading-edge environmental-science concepts and technologies.
  • Challenge 5. Improving quality of life in rural communities. The research frontiers: (1) Evaluate the effects of changes in agricultural market structure; and (2) Meet the challenge of rural development's changing context.
  • Five challenges provide opportunities for public agricultural research to serve the expanded customer base.
  • The committee found evidence that REE scientists produce research of high quality.
  • The committee found that REE agencies face a number of recruitment and retention challenges, including stiff competition from the private sector, other federal agencies, and academe, complex and constraining hiring rules under the Office of Personnel Management, and an increasing number of non-US citizens with PhDs in agricultural sciences who are not eligible for employment in US government agencies.
  • In benchmarking REE against other federal intramural research programs, the committee found that unsatisfactory performance has very little consequence in the REE intramural system, whereas in some other federal intramural research programs, reduction or complete loss of research support or ineligibility for tenure was a consequence of unsatisfactory research performance.