In 1969 the world watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a human on the Moon, ending a decade-long, $24 billion space race ($150 billion in today’s dollars). We need investment on a similar scale to fund research that addresses the biggest challenge facing the United States in the next 30 years: food and energy security.

Today, we face growing and economically empowered nations, energy-intensive global economies, and major shifts in global climate that together constitute the perfect storm for agriculture. Yet plant-science research has been underfunded for decades—and funding is projected to shrink.

In 2012 the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that some 920 million people—one-eighth of the world’s population—do not have enough food to meet their daily caloric intake target, and the world’s population continues to expand. Last year world population passed the 7 billion mark, and the...

Global maize, wheat, and rice reserves have hit near-all-time lows in recent years, pushing commodity prices to near-record highs.

With food supply failing to keep up with the booming population, we need to find innovative ways to boost food production, by reducing losses to pathogens and increasing yield. The next generation of innovations in agriculture can only be achieved by using the best science and tools available, be it conventional breeding, advanced breeding, or biotechnology. To do so, the United States must make a commitment to fund plant-science research in the same manner we funded our race to reach the Moon.

The global demand for food is further complicated by the emergence of new economic powers. The GDP of China is projected to equal that of the U.S. by 2020, and a growing Chinese middle class is already demanding greater access to high-input foods like meat. Indeed, US exports of pork to China are at record highs, and pork production there continues to grow.

China’s demand for meat is accompanied by increased demand for grain. Approximately 1,000 gallons of fresh water and 10–20 kilograms of grains and other plant material (as well as the much larger quantity of water needed to grow them) are required to produce 1 kilogram of meat. In 2008, the United States exported less than 1 million bushels of corn to China. Just 1 year later, 4 million bushels were exported, and in 2010, the U.S. sent more than 40 million.

A consequence of this increased demand for foodstuffs is shrinking grain reserves. Global maize, wheat, and rice reserves have hit near-all-time lows in recent years, pushing commodity prices to near-record highs.

The issue is further aggravated by the need to develop alternatives to oil as energy sources. Today, approximately 30 percent of the corn harvest is committed to biofuel (ethanol) production, increasing pressure on the price of grain crops. In developing countries, these price surges can quickly lead to social and political unrest, as witnessed in the Middle East and Northern Africa over the past 2 years. Indeed, wheat price increases were credited with sparking protests in Tunisia and Algeria and continue to have political consequences today. Food prices were a topic of the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States, and will likely continue to drive social unrest in developing countries.

This tight supply also means that a major weather event such as a flood or drought has an almost immediate impact on grain prices. Global climate change associated with increased CO2 emissions, and increases in both the number and intensity of extreme weather events, are aggravating the food production situation dramatically. Major crop losses, such as those seen in France in 2003 and in Russia in 2010, are likely to become more common, dramatically affecting local and global availability of food and leading to steep increases in food prices around the world. Indeed, following the Russian droughts of 2010, corn and wheat prices almost doubled.

Here in the United States, policymakers rarely pay much attention to food prices, because at present the cost of food remains relatively low. But just in the past year, overall food prices rose by around 5 percent, with beef prices going up by 9 percent.

Plant-science research payoffs

Given the importance of the food supply to economic, social, and political stability, the rationale for strong investments in agricultural science are clear. Plant science has the potential to provide practical solutions by increasing crop yields; producing plants that are more energy efficient and thus require smaller quantities of energy-intensive fertilizers and water; and developing biofuels crops that do not impact the food market. Despite these clear risks and potential benefits, however, agricultural research in the United States remains unquestionably underfunded.

The US National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s commitment to food security amounts to only $19 million. While the National Science Foundation invested $440 million in plant-science research in 2010, and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service $300 million, the prospects for increased federal investments into plant science in the near future look bleak. This is in stark contrast to the massive increases in funding that Europe and China have funneled into plant-science research. To put these numbers into perspective, the value of the US corn crop in 2011 was nearly $80 billion dollars and the agricultural export market in 2010 was $100 billion. Thus, the USDA and NSF combined are investing less than 0.75 percent of the value of agricultural exports in basic or applied plant--science research.

If the United States could spend $150 billion to send men to the Moon as a demonstration that it could lead the world to new technological heights, we should consider a 10-year, $100 billion investment in plant science a small price to pay to keep the country at the forefront of plant science, remain the world’s strongest agricultural economy, and develop the next generation of agricultural products.

An investment of this scale would still be dwarfed by the country’s $30 billion annual commitment to medical research, a similarly important issue. The risks for failing to meet this challenge are great: in an overpopulated, food-limited world we will inevitably witness more social unrest and, potentially, food and climate wars. The U.S. must seize the opportunity now to build on its tremendous strength in agriculture and reverse the current path of reduced spending and investment. If we do nothing, we may return to our pre-1776 role as colonists who simply provide food to more strategically minded nations.

Tom Brutnell is the director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Wolf B. Frommer is the director of the Department of Plant Biology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California.

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?