As the global population continues to grow, increasing to a projected nine billion people by 2050, demand for food and other agricultural products will increase. This demand must be met even as climate change compounds issues such as soil loss, pest and pathogen damage, and land and water availability. Using only current farming methods and techniques, an additional billion hectares of farmland—a land mass equivalent to the size of Canada—would be needed to support such a population increase. Addressing these immense challenges will require the development and scale-up of new, innovative, and environmentally friendly agricultural methods and technologies. This, in turn, will require investments in agricultural research and education, and recruitment of students educated in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into the agricultural workforce.
Recent events have underscored the urgency of investing additional resources and recruiting new talent to address the challenges facing the food and agriculture sectors. The bird flu epidemic that swept the Midwest in the summer of 2015 led to the death of more than 48 million birds and more than doubled egg prices across the country. Fundamental knowledge of the habits of the bird-flu virus would have facilitated more effective management of and response to the epidemic, yet at the epidemic’s height, producers and scientists were struggling just to figure out how bird flu spreads. Meanwhile, the worst drought in five hundred years cost the state of California over $2.2 billion and thousands of jobs in 2014 alone. Drought-resistant crops are desperately needed, as are healthy soils (which retain more water than degraded soils, thereby moderating local weather and preventing soil erosion). But breeding new crops relies on a skilled workforce, curated seed stocks, and a pool of wild resources that is diminishing. Maintaining healthy soils requires knowledge of testable markers for healthy soil and techniques for stopping soil quality from degrading.
These challenges are amplified by a workforce insufficient to meet the needs of the food and agriculture sectors in the United States. A recent study by the United States Department of Agriculture and Purdue University showed that the number of open positions in agriculture that require college-level training exceeds the number of graduates by 20,000 positions per year. The deficit is particularly troubling in the field of plant breeding. Historically, plant breeding has been the most effective means to increase crop yields. Today, there are just 1/3 as many plant breeders in the public sector as there were in 1994, and industry regularly seeks more professional plant breeders than are graduated annually. The upshot is that at a time when the food system is facing immense challenges and pressures, the United States faces a deficit of professionals with the skills to develop workable solutions, especially solutions reliant on plant breeding.
Both the technical and the workforce challenges facing food and agriculture can be addressed by educating a new generation of agricultural professionals. Achieving this goal will require recruiting for agriculture both students already interested in STEM fields and those who could be drawn to enter STEM fields with the promise of meaningful employment, as well as students from backgrounds that traditionally feed into the agriculture sector. By engaging outstanding, diverse STEM students and providing them with excellent training, the United States could meet its need for new, innovative approaches to addressing the complex challenges of securing a sustainable food supply and agricultural industry, and it could meet agricultural-workforce needs in the public and private sectors. Furthermore, working together, Federal agencies, private-sector foundations, trade associations, companies, commodity organizations, universities and colleges, and others can foster a modern system of agricultural research and training that places special emphasis on the key challenges of our time, such as breeding crops that will withstand anticipated stresses.
That is why the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is calling on all stakeholders to advance research and education in food and agriculture by expanding the participation of students from all backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); and by supporting scientific inquiry. In the coming months, OSTP is planning to highlight both the progress made to date and new commitments made in response to this call-to-action. Examples of potential commitments include:
If your organization would like to participate by making a new commitment to bolstering agriculture research or education, broadening STEM participation in agriculture, or increasing the diversity of the workforce in food and agriculture, please use this web form to tell us about it by February 1, 2016. Together, we can ensure our country remains healthy and bountiful.
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Elizabeth R. Stulberg is Senior Policy Advisor for Food and Life Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.