Research Opportunities in Food and Agriculture Microbiology, 2005

Executive Summary

This report presents a wealth of research opportunities in food and agriculture microbiology. The backdrop for these research opportunities is a world of microorganisms teeming with threats and benefits to abundant, healthy food and associated environments. Threats come from microbial pathogens that perpetrate a wide range of plant and animal diseases, destroying agricultural productivity. The constant spread and evolution of agricultural pathogens provides a continually renewed source of challenges to productivity and food safety. Pathogens continue to cause harm once food has left the farm, causing spoilage, and in some cases poisoning and diseases of humans and animals. New vulnerabilities are generated for agriculture by global movement of agricultural products, trading policies, industrial agricultural practices, and the potential for malicious releases of pathogens by “bioterrorists.” In addition to the threats, benefits also come from the many microorganisms associated with, or introduced into, our food supply where they serve important roles in bioprocessing, fermentation, or as probiotics.

Science and technology emerging from microbiology research can help meet these challenges to food and agriculture. Knowledge of microbial pathogens will lead to tools for surveillance and disease prevention. Beneficial microbes may find uses in protecting agriculture, preserving food, enhancing the value of food products and providing general benefits to health and well being. Complex interactions among microbes and agricultural systems must be better understood to facilitate the optimal use of beneficial microorganisms and maximal control of pathogens.

Opportunities in microbiology research are the gateway to sustaining and improving agriculture and food production, quality, and safety. Multidisciplinary research must be undertaken to capitalize on advances in different disciplines, such as genomics, nanotechnology, and computational biology. Research into the interactions of animal and plant hosts with pathogens and beneficial microbes is essential to preventing disease and encouraging mutualistic interactions. On a more holistic scale, interactions occurring among organisms within a microbial community require study so that a healthy balance between the highly managed ecosystems of industrial agriculture and the unmanaged ecosystems of the natural environment can be achieved. Finally, research is critical to determine why pathogens continue to emerge and where and how newly developed technologies should be put to use.

Barriers to seizing these research opportunities must be overcome. The lagging priority of food and agriculture research will be reversed as funding programs and research institutions recognize its importance and improve resources, infrastructure, and incentives accordingly. Endeavors, such as long-term research projects and the banking of diverse microbial specimens, require support so that a foundation of future innovation and discovery is established and sustained. A decline in the number of young scientists entering the fields of food and agriculture research will have to be reversed with funding and fellowship opportunities to provide a highly trained core that will carry out the research of the future. Regulatory hurdles impose stringent processes for research on certain organisms, but are viewed as out of step with actual hazards and must be revised consistent with scientific assessment of risk. Changes that are needed will have to be advocated by scientists, research institutions, professional societies, non-governmental institutions, and companies that are committed to food and agriculture.

This report offers recommendations for research priorities and identifies barriers to a strong food and agriculture research agenda.

 

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