Published 6:00 pm, Sunday, October 8, 2017
Along the path from farm to table, the science of food safety is an essential ingredient. The federal government estimates 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses each year in the United States. Yet, since the early 2000s, federal spending on U.S. agriculture and food-related research has been declining.
As lawmakers in Washington D.C. prepare to author the next federal Farm Bill, our ability to maintain a safe and adequate food supply is in their hands. This Congress must authorize an increase of financial support for agricultural research and innovation, which is central to the ongoing health and security of our nation, or else risk a future where our food supply is increasingly less safe.
The Farm Bill is a group of legislative acts that serve as the main federal programmatic and financial support for the U.S. agricultural industry. Previous bills have authorized a variety of funds and policy guidance for USDA programs, as well as funds available to universities such as Cornell University that pursue hundreds of scientific projects designed to benefit our citizens.
Much of the work done in my food science laboratory has been funded by federal research dollars, an important investment by the U.S. government to ensure the food we eat won’t harm us. When a specific strain of the Listeria bacterium caused 21 deaths across the country in 1999, federal research money in my lab helped solve the nationwide foodborne illness outbreak. My Cornell colleagues helped pinpoint the cause through prior federally funded work. It allowed us to create a database of various strains of Listeria so that we could match strains obtained from individual people who had become ill as part of this outbreak with a strain obtained from a specific food product. We traced the contaminated food all the way back to the food processor, who then recalled the meat from shelves. Had our research collaboration not existed, or the federal money not available, the contaminated food would have remained on the market longer and more people would have died.
In a forthcoming report by the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that reducing foodborne illness by 10 percent would keep about 5 million Americans from getting sick each year. To achieve this objective, however, we need a steady flow of newly trained food scientists and available research money to help develop new technological solutions.
Even if Congress maintains our 2014 Farm Bill levels of research funding, the U.S. already has slipped from our position as the world leader in food and agricultural research. China has outpaced us in public support for agriculture research and development since 2009, and Brazil and Argentina now outspend us on agriculture R&D entirely. Therefore, in addition to stepping up public funding for food and agricultural research, we also need to consider new pathways to fill the gaps.
One such innovation established by the 2014 Farm Bill is the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), which is required to match every one of its public dollars with non-federal funding. By doing so, it delivers huge value for American taxpayers. The result: The U.S. government’s $200 million investment in the foundation will deliver more than $400 million in scientific programming to benefit farmers — and everyone who eats.
To protect the health of our citizens, we must commit to the idea that more investment in food and agricultural research is essential. Public and private partners need additional encouragement to come together to ensure the future of a safe, affordable and wholesome food supply. When the next unique strain of Listeria, or any other dangerous foodborne bacterium, is present in our food supply, it will be institutions such as FFAR, which invest in critical science and innovation, that will give New York and the U.S. brighter and safer futures.
Kathryn J. Boor is the dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and shares responsibility for leadership and advancement of Cornell Cooperative Extension throughout New York. She was previously chaired the Department of Food Science at Cornell.