Image: Puamelia/Flickr

Everyone knows that broccoli is good for you. What was not known—until researchers examined how broccoli was prepared for distribution—is that frozen broccoli lacked the cancer-fighting nutrients that the fresh vegetable provided.

With a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), however, scientists at the University of Illinois discovered in 2013 that a small sprinkling of dried daikon radish restored the vegetable’s chemistry that the freezing process altered.

Research like this fuels the constant improvements in U.S. food and agriculture production. Americans are united in our desire to nourish our families, but the nation’s food and agriculture system does not always make it easy to get it right. We need a new age of agricultural innovation to begin, so we can produce more nutritious food more affordably and sustainably, and deliver this food more efficiently to grocery bags and dinner tables around the country.

As one of the largest and wealthiest consumers and producers of food on the planet, the United States can and should lead on creating new solutions. China and Brazil are investing heavily in agricultural science and pushing the boundaries of what food production can accomplish. China, in fact, doubled its investment in agricultural R&D between 2000 and 2008, while the United States is barely sustaining 2 percent annual growth in funding.

The President’s proposed 2016 budget, which Congress started discussing this month, includes a $125 million increase in AFRI grants. This increase would bring the annual budget to $450 million, still shy of the $700 million that Congress envisioned when it authorized the program in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Productivity growth in the U.S. farm sector. (Image courtesy of Supporters of Agricultural Research based on data from the USDA Economic Research Service)

Current House and Senate leadership has spoken out on the need for quality research. By funding the authorization and stimulating scientific competition, we will begin to reinvigorate the long-term growth of one of the pillars of our economy—the U.S. agricultural production system.

AFRI was established as the primary source of peer-reviewed, competitively awarded agriculture research grants. The program is an important source of federal research funding and the largest to address the many challenges confronting agriculture today with a process that is open to researchers from any institution.

The competitive process that AFRI uses to award grants applies the best scientific research to these challenges. Funding is based on merit, and proposals are rigorously peer-reviewed, similar to how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards research grants. Competing for grants guarantees quality research—and a properly funded program will ensure that enough science can be generated to help our food and agriculture industries solve many fundamental problems.

In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued an extensive report on agriculture research. The key point was that farmers cannot rely on 20th century breakthroughs to handle 21st century food production crises. One of PCAST’s solutions was to increase AFRI’s annual budget to $700 million—matching the amount authorized in the Farm Bill—to generate new scientific advancements.

Asking for more research and development funding in a time of diminished resources can be a hard sell. But childhood obesity is only one of the many problems confronting food production and consumption in the U.S. Outbreaks of foodborne illness last year were triggered by everything from dried chia seeds to candied apples. California farmers lead the nation in production but are now weathering the region’s worst drought in 1,200 years. Diseases such as avian flu cross over between livestock and humans and back with increasing frequency.

It is in our national interest to invest in research exploring every facet of how plants and animals develop and how food is made and consumed. We need a broader scientific agenda that will increase the number of crop varieties and their hardiness, as well as improve how we raise livestock and keep animals healthy. The AFRI budget increase—a modest yet critically important proposal—will help make sure that we put our best minds to work and there’s good food on everyone’s plate today and tomorrow.