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Research Key to Continued Agricultural Success, Industry Leaders Say

Tackling humanity’s great agricultural challenges seems like a daunting task, but former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman has a few ideas. 

He thinks the best place to start is by demystifying science, so consumers can feel confident about the food they eat. 

“If a company made a movie, it doesn’t matter how good it was. If people didn’t go and see it, it was a total failure,” Glickman says. “It’s the same thing with scientists. We have to demystify our history of not addressing consumer concerns.”

During the “Tackling Humanity’s Great Challenges: A Pathway for Research to 2030” panel at the World Food Prize’s Borlaug Dialogue, Glickman pointed to examples like GMOs, saying they’re used readily in the biomedical field, but there’s some resistance among consumers in the realm of food. He also says practices like gene editing might be the next step in getting consumers on board with something that science says is beneficial. 

“I don’t think that scientists talking to each other is necessarily the best venue for that to happen,” he says. “I think we need to engage the public in a much more open, fair, and transparent way.”

Research Has Been Effective for USDA

Research has led to many developments in the agriculture field recently. McDonald’s added apples as a possible option in 2004 and put them in every Happy Meal starting in 2011, after research and encouragement from the USDA. 

“For developing countries, it’s a whole other issue,” says Chavonda Jacobs-Young, an administrator in the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) for the USDA. “For us it’s about whether or not we have apples at McDonald’s. But [for developing countries], we are talking about people who have nutrition deficits. Some of the inability to learn is because you can’t learn when you’re hungry. There are so many more situations that require our attention and our innovation and technology, and I hope we can continue to work together globally.”

Research has been effective at addressing some of these situations. Jacobs-Young notes that products like Xanthan gum, which has become a common food additiveDEET insect repellant; and more came from ARS discoveries.

“When I joined the Agriculture Research Service, they had a saying that we’re the best kept secret, and I could not understand that for the life of me,” Jacobs-Young says. “When I began to learn all of the discoveries that have come out of agricultural research, often in partnership with land grant universities, I was just amazed at the magnitude of the fields that we have influenced.”

Research Is Effective, but Are Funds Consistent?

Land grant universities have been key players in agriculture research, yet funding has been a concern, according to Noelle Cockett, the president of Utah State University. 

She says private funds prefer that their funding and the tuition paid by students go to student education instead of research.

“That means we have to keep pressing that research is incredibly important in agriculture,” Cockett says. “Whether it’s through private companies for philanthropy or the federal government, we need to keep that going.”

She says there’s usually a 10-year gap between discovery and actual implementation. That gap is accepted in biomedical research, but that’s not always the case in ag, which can hurt funding opportunities. 

“It may seem very futuristic,” Cockett says, “but that gap and the investment in discovery research need to continue.”

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