According to a white paper published by the Institute of Food Technologists entitled “Food Research: Call to Action on Funding and Priorities,” public spending on foundational research for both agriculture and food in the U.S. has been slowly trending downward since 2006 or so, while private R&D spending has seen a small increase.

Agrifood (agriculture and food) is the third-largest contributor to the U.S. GDP. In 2018, U.S. agrifood contributed $5.08 trillion (28.4%) to the GDP while accounting for 22.8 million jobs. However, the total U.S. investment in agrifood R&D—both private and especially public (federal) has been relatively low.

In 2018, private investment, including venture capital, in agrifood R&D was $21.6 billion, of which the food sector accounted for $9.9 billion, which was higher than the public investment at $0.1 billion in the food sector and $0.9 billion in agriculture. In comparison, in 2018, public investment in pharmaceutical as a percentage of GDP was higher (4.9%) than agrifood R&D (4.2%) and food R&D (1%), despite the lower contribution to the U.S. economy.

A 2019 survey of IFT members found three priority research areas for increased funding:

  1. Public health—to improve the nutritional quality, palatability and accessibility of food.
  2. Food safety and quality—to protect the integrity of globalized food chains and digitize food safety and traceability to prevent, manage and address critical issues.
  3. Food security and sustainability—to increase the quantity and quality of food available, drawing on technology breakthroughs while reducing food loss and waste.

In the survey, IFT says policymakers must recognize and address the significant risk associated with chronically underfunded research in food, otherwise these three areas will continue to suffer from lack of funding.

U.S. vs. European spending

In 2018, total private industry R&D expenditures for agriculture and food were $20.7 billion in the U.S. and $6.7 billion in the EU (see graph). Public, government expenditures for agriculture and food research were $0.9 billion in the U.S. and $7.1 billion for the EU, with agrifood totaling $21.6 billion for public and private in the U.S. and $13.8 billion in the EU.

Why is the U.S. public sector funding so low compared to the EU? According to Farida Mohamedshah, IFT director of nutrition science, food laws and regulations and coauthor of the whitepaper, foundational research historically has been done by the public sector, and research results have been made available publicly to other researchers and food processors. The private sector of the food industry, however, invests more in the developmental aspects of research rather than in foundational research (the “R” of R&D). 

Whitepaper coauthor Steven Havlik, a food industry consultant for more than 35 years, says, “Both of the major multinationals that I worked for did do some foundational research, but it was a fairly small percentage of their budget. The smaller companies I was involved in didn’t do any foundational research at all.” So fundamentally, the situation is that most private companies are devoting 90-95% of their R&D funds to development as opposed to pure research, says Havlik. “That’s where the issue lies. You just don’t see research going on at the foundational level very much within industry, and that’s the challenge we’re facing as well with declining public funding.” 

When you look at budgets for the USDA, the predominant source of public funding for food and agriculture research with a $2.6 billion budget, the amount budgeted for foundational technical research is less than 50%, says Havlik. And this amount gets distributed over a broad range of categories.

Currently, the decline in public funding for food foundational research is of great concern and cannot be substituted by private spending. The IFT is calling for a paradigm shift to increase investment in food research by the public and private sectors, as well as public-private consortia. IFT has identified a need for:

  • Increasing and prioritizing USDA’s funding for agrifood research, with a primary focus on food
  • Authorizing additional federal agencies to fund interdisciplinary research in food
  • Enhancing public-private partnerships for agrifood research, with a focus on research in food

The IFT is suggesting that the impact of insufficient funding in food science will be felt in the economy and public health, will erode the talent and research pipeline, and make the U.S. less competitive globally.