- Food research in the United States is chronically underfunded, with research dollars declining since 2008, according to a white paper from the Institute of Food Technologists.
- The agrifood industry is the third largest direct contributor to the nation's gross domestic product, the white paper states. In 2018, the industry contributed $5.08 trillion to the economy — nearly a quarter of GDP. It accounted for 22.8 million jobs — 14.2% of the workforce. But private investment in research was $21.6 billion, and public investment added up to $1 billion. As a percentage of GDP, it was 4.2%, which was less than the pharmaceutical sector.
- The food science organization recommends increasing USDA funding for research in food and agriculture, authorizing more multidisciplinary government studies that touch on topics in food and enhancing public-private partnerships for research in food and agriculture.
In the white paper, IFT named priorities of using research to improve nutritional quality, taste and accessibility of food, protect the integrity of food for safety purposes and increase the supply of nutritious food while reducing loss and waste.
So if everyone needs food research, and if these priorities are pressing to everyone, why is less being spent on it? IFT's 40-page white paper goes into many reasons, but it boils down to a few big ones. First, research is becoming less of a federal government priority. In times of budgetary belt-tightening, research is often one of the first things to get cut across the board. In a paper published by Boston University in 2015, following several years of tight federal budgets, the American Association for the Advancement of Science found federal government R&D for all disciplines went down from $160 billion in 2010 to $140 billion. Adjusting for inflation, the reduction was 15.4%.
IFT found a big shift in publicly funded research on agriculture and food as well. Between 1970 and 2008, the paper says, the federal government paid for about half of all R&D research for the industry. In 2013, that fell to about 30%.
While privately funded R&D has grown, reaching about $5.7 billion in 2013, the public and private sectors tend to research vastly different things. Privately funded research often looks at developing sectors of industry — improving manufacturing and agricultural practices to improve profits, the white paper says. Public investments drive environmental and natural resource outcomes, as well as solutions in issues like food safety and policy changes. Economic studies have shown that this sort of research also contributes more to the overall economy, the white paper found. Each dollar spent by the government on agricultural R&D helps stimulate 70 cents in private R&D spending.
Privately funded research also raises objectivity issues. When the research isn't done to focus on improving a company's own processes and instead looks at a wider issue, those results may be biased in favor of the industry that funded it. An infamous example of this was Coca-Cola's $1.5 million donation to the Global Energy Balance Network — dedicated to promoting obesity research — which ultimately concluded that junk food doesn't directly cause obesity and consumers should instead exercise more. Since the backstory of the funding came out in 2015, the group shut down, the former university professor who ran it stepped down from his position and the university he was affiliated with returned a $1 million donation from the company.
Marion Nestle, a well-known nutrition researcher, made it her goal to expose many of these studies with her book "Unsavory Truth," published in 2018, and reporting the studies she runs across on her Food Politics blog. And while some of these studies may hold up scientifically, it still calls into question whether they can be viewed as science or marketing.
But right now, research is needed more than ever. According to a study from Del Monte Foods, one in three Americans said they have never learned about eating healthy. Only a third of Americans strongly agree the food they eat is safe, according to a study from the Center for Food Integrity. And, per research from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a projected 34% increase in world population and increasing urbanization and wealth will require food production to rise 70% by 2050.
One way to figure all of this out is for government to put funding back into food and agriculture. Currently, less than 2% of all of USDA's funding goes toward research, while about 3.4% of National Institutes of Health funding is spent on R&D, IFT found. A lot of the funding amounts are dependent on the Farm Bill, which is only reauthorized every five or six years — and was most recently passed in 2018. But other appropriations can still be passed in the federal government to make food science a priority. And some of this research can make an immediate difference. USDA recently discovered flaws in the way calories were calculated — which had not been re-examined in more than 70 years — that resulted in companies like Kind Snacks reducing calorie counts on their labels.
Private industry can also put more funding into research through partnerships and foundations to take away potential bias. A 2016 article in The BMJ argues this can be a good idea, given companies' interest in finding out answers to health issues, like how to reduce sugar in products. There are examples of this affiliation approach to reduce bias. The International Food Information Council Foundation receives funding from Big Food, yet is known for research on nutrition and consumer choices. The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, while also affiliated with the pasta brand, partners with respected research organizations to take a look at broader food sustainability issues.