Challenges in Food and Agriculture

Agriculture is a fundamental societal activity, characterized by many different landscapes, crops, markets, and participants. Food and agricultural products are central to the daily life of all citizens, though most do not recognize the fragility of the environment that brings forth this biological abundance. The executive summary of the 2012 report, Agricultural Preparedness and the United States Agricultural Research Enterprise (PCAST, 2012) begins with a list of the challenges to the food and agricultural system:

  • Managing new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants
  • Increasing the efficiency of water use
  • Growing food in a changing climate
  • Reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture
  • Managing the production of bioenergy
  • Producing safe and nutritious food
  • Assisting with global food security and maintaining abundant yields


Each year in the U.S. and worldwide, numerous reports are issued by governmental and civic organizations on the relationship of the food and agricultural system to food security, national security, trade, economic development, environment, and health. Many reports emphasize the need to dramatically increase food production worldwide to feed a growing global population. This places even greater pressure on a system that must already continually respond to the changing conditions of biotic and abiotic threats while attempting to maintain the sustainability of the natural resource base, address nutritional needs, ensure food safety, and meet the demand for novel agricultural products.

These challenges drive the long-term need for research and innovation in food and agriculture. Although farmers are often seen as the end-users for innovation in agriculture, the public is the ultimate beneficiary, in more ways than one. The U.S. agricultural system is not only about supplying an affordable, healthful, and safe domestic source of food, fiber, and fuel, but also land stewardship, ecosystem services, and other societal benefits, including jobs and security.

U.S. Research in Food and Agriculture

Calls for increased investment in U.S. agricultural research have come from many national and international organizations, including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, major universities, economists, scientific societies, think tanks, commodity groups, the United Nations, foundations, and international development organizations.  Recent studies suggest that the U.S. is falling behind in knowledge generation for food and agriculture, with the potential long term effect of slowing productivity and reducing international competitiveness (ERS, 2016; Pardey and Bedow, 2017).

Aside from increasing the overall level of the research effort, there is also growing interest in expanding the scope of scientific approaches in pursuit of advances in food and agriculture, in at least three ways that could lead to breakthroughs:

  • Systems optimization: A better understanding is needed of how science can contribute to the optimization of the food and agricultural value chain, including its connections to health, environmental, and societal outcomes. Scientific innovations and solutions (not to mention policy and regulatory actions) need to be evaluated not only for their incremental benefits but also from a food-and-agriculture whole systems perspective.
  • Integration of R&D: Stronger knowledge connections between basic, foundational, and applied research (and extension) in food and agriculture can lead to breakthroughs. It is widely recognized that innovation is not a linear, one-way process but that applications inform the scope of basic research questions, which in turn, offer enabling new knowledge.
  • Interdisciplinary convergence: Capitalizing on advances from research fields outside of mainstream food and agriculture. Excitement around information technology (big data, machine learning and robotics), remote sensing, biotechnology and genomics, nano-materials, bio-electronics and other fields of science create the possibility for technological paradigm shifts.


National Academies reports related to these themes include:

A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System (2015)

Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond (2014)

Towards Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century (2010)

A New Biology for the 21st Century (2009)