The global population is projected to reach more than nine billion people by 2050. This will create unprecedented demand for food and other agricultural products at a time when the U.S. agricultural sector is suffering a shortage of trained workers.
Despite overwhelming need for innovation in agriculture in the face of climate change, pests, pathogens, soil loss, and availability of land and water, the United States faces a predicted agricultural workforce shortfall of as many as 100,000 jobs in food and agriculture lacking appropriately trained professionals to fill them over the next five years. In addition to needing more agriculture professionals, the United States also needs professionals with broader training that integrates agricultural sciences and other STEM disciplines. Without a larger and better-skilled agricultural workforce, the pace of technological innovation in agriculture may slow, and critical global challenges may not be addressed.
In January 2016, OSTP made an initial call for action for targeted approaches to expand and diversify the communities and STEM disciplines from which the agricultural sector draws its workforce. That call is being reopened to seek further input on new actions that would address the dual challenge of improving and expanding agricultural education and tying agricultural education to areas of research and training that are critical for addressing future food supply needs.
Specifically, OSTP is interested in commitments to programs and investments that would:
Education of the Agriculture Workforce
Agriculture is a fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavor and agriculture professionals rely on a range of specialties, necessitating a broad education. Plant breeders, for example, draw upon entomology, plant pathology, agronomy, soil science, and microbiology, and need to integrate the tools of genetics, bioinformatics, statistical modeling, and robotics.
The challenge of expanding and diversifying the agricultural workforce can be addressed through early and advanced education programs and programs to expand the agricultural research that supports the training of the agricultural workforce. One necessary step involves garnering increased support for informal and formal pre-college education programs and for higher education at the associate, bachelor, doctoral, and postdoctoral levels. Workforce expansion and diversification can be accomplished by retaining students already interested in agriculture and by drawing students to agriculture from a broad range of other STEM disciplines.
Agricultural Research and Training
U.S. agricultural research is performed by private industry, Federal labs, and universities and colleges through a mix of Federal, State, and private funding. Although all of these research investments are important to the U.S. agricultural enterprise, investments in academic research at universities and colleges serve the dual purpose of advancing the basic science that drives innovations and technologies and also training the next generation of agricultural professionals. At higher education institutions, research and training are coupled as post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates participate in research as part of their training for both research and non-research careers. Without a strong agricultural research enterprise at universities and colleges, it will not be possible to train the next-generation agricultural workforce. Collaborations among Federal agencies, foundations, companies, commodity organizations, scientific societies, and academia can promote a new age of agriculture by supporting a diverse cadre of agricultural professionals who bring a fresh perspective to innovation.
During the 21st century, the world will face challenges to food production and access that will be exacerbated by a changing climate and a diminishing agricultural workforce. The United States can take action now to provide a foundation for a sustainable agriculture enterprise. With strategic public and private engagement and commitment to agricultural education and research, America can meet the challenges of a growing global population and have a stable academic and industrial workforce to sustain future development.
Would your organization like to participate? If applicable, your announcement of a new or expanded program in support of agriculture education and research may be incorporated into White House materials, and your organization and relevant partners may be invited to participate in White House events on this topic. Examples of prior White House materials on the National Microbiome Initiative or the Nation of Makers Initiative may serve as templates. Please email your submission to email@example.com by August 31, 2016 and include “Ag Workforce” in the subject line.
Jo Handelsman is the Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Elizabeth Stulberg is Senior Policy Advisor for Food and Life Sciences in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy