December 1, 2022
International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA) applauds NIFA’s continued investment into research, education and extension efforts to advance technologies in crop production and food science, increase profitability and sustainability of farming operations, foster responsible stewardship of environmental resources, promote public health and healthy diets, and create job opportunities to support the American economy and increase competitiveness of US agriculture.
As NIFA prepares its RFAs for competitive programs, it is critical to highlight the importance of horticulture (including floriculture) in the US economy. Horticulture supports the livelihoods of 2.2 million throughout the county, and generates over $120 billion in salaries and wages. Unlike some food crops that are produced at levels that exceed domestic food demand and are routed in significant quantities for uses other than human consumption, fresh fruits and vegetables are grown solely for human consumption and are a key component of a healthy diet. In fact, there is a growing need to diversify diets of Americans. In 2020, research at The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University estimated that over 105, 000 Americans die each year specifically from not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, there is urgency to address nutritional security needs of billions of Americans, who represent 10.5% of the US households living in food insecure households. It is critical, therefore, to prioritize horticultural research through all of NIFA programs.
American horticulture faces unique challenges that can only be addressed by a sustained federal investment into R&D, and focusing on systems solutions for addressing these problems. Specifically,
- Labor and automation. In addition to the perennial issues with access to seasonal labor, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed previously unseen vulnerabilities in the labor supply. Furthermore, modern agriculture is increasingly dependent on the collection and sophisticated analyses of big data and operation of next-gen technologies. An investment into R&D for robotics and automation technologies that will reduce labor needs in the most labor-intensive segments of the supply chain while maintaining the quality and safety of the product, is paramount.
- Climate-smart agriculture and smart energy. Fresh produce and floral industry plays a unique role in a responsible stewardship of our Nation's limited natural resources. We see a critical need to:
- Understand basic science behind crop-specific conservation practices that not only sequester atmospheric carbon, but provide other environmental benefits.
- It is now clear that soil carbon stocks and soil-sequestered carbon are negatively impacted by tillage. However, current production practices for most economically-important vegetables (including vine-stalk vegetables) require tillage, forming beds, etc. Therefore, there is a need to develop and validate production practices for vegetables that involve minimal soil disturbance. Assessment of economic viability, labor, equipment and varietal needs required for these production practices must be a component of this work.
- Develop technologies that will lead to the intensification of production under the conditions that lend themselves to intensification practices, and in parallel provide incentives for taking marginal lands out of crop production.
- Develop renewable and affordable energy solutions, and evaluate research and outreach efforts that incentivize small businesses to develop microgrids for renewable energy.
- Research is critically needed to develop valuation metrics for carbon-sequestration and GHG emissions in specialty crops in order to provide a robust foundation for incentivizing adoption of the production practices that promote soil health, sequester carbon and also allow for profitable operations
- Conduct research to assess economic viability, profitability and sustainability of regenerative agriculture, including a robust and realistic assessment of food safety aspects of regenerative production systems.
- Biotech tools and resources. Biotechnology is an important tool for solving problems of feeding a growing global population with fewer inputs, developing agriculture that is resilient to the consequences of the changing climate and having crops amenable to robotics and mechanization. Key priorities for biotechnology research and adoption include:
- Identification and release of genotypes and tools to manipulate them in order to develop varieties that can be grown in new or changing environments (including indoors), and have superior taste, sensory and nutritional properties
- Understanding consumer perception and overcoming barriers to consumer acceptance of genetic traits that make specialty crop production more efficient and sustainable. There does not appear to be a consensus on how most efficiently address perceived consumer hesitancy toward biotech crops, however, anticipating these uncertainties will be critical to advancing sustainable horticulture.
- Sustainable packaging. Distribution and sale of fresh produce requires packing and packaging that is low cost, biodegradable, stackable, yet sturdy enough so that it can withstand temperatures and conditions under which fresh produce and floral are shipped and stored. There is also a critical need to develop home compostable/biodegradable films suitable for modified atmosphere packaging that fresh and fresh-cut industry depends on.
- Technologies to reduce food waste and food loss. Fresh produce and floral are perishable commodities. Therefore, there is a critical need to develop tools and technologies that extend shelf life and quality of fresh fruits, vegetables and florals. Such tools and technologies cannot rely on single-use packaging/packing or have a significant requirement for energy, and must include modern bio/technological approaches for reducing food loss and waste. Further, it is critical to understand the utility of these technologies in the systems context of complex supply chains. We refer our colleagues at USDA NIFA to the issue #78 of Current Opinions in Biotechnology for a curated compendium of well-referenced reviews of scientific literature on the feasibility of using various technologies for extending fresh produce shelf life and other tools for reducing food loss and waste.
- Systems “One Health” approach to food safety. While HACCP has revolutionized food safety for foods with an effective kill step, consumers continue to demand fresh and/or minimally processed food. This demand is a recognition of superior nutritional and sensory properties of such foods. Unfortunately, some fresh foods have been linked to outbreaks of human illness due to zoonotic pathogens, including parasites and viruses with human hosts. It is becoming clear that addressing the safety of fresh and minimally processed foods requires a different paradigm: one that considers pathogens and produce safety in a broad context. Although often associated with the presence of animals and manure, ‘recurring, emerging and persistent’outbreak strains (referred to as REP strains) may challenge simplistic explanations. The persistence of zoonotic pathogens in the environment, including genetic or other factors that influence the ‘fitness’ of these organisms, needs to be better understood. Additionally, the distribution of REP strains in the environment and routes of contamination need to be researched so that stakeholders, whether in the fresh produce or animal agriculture industry, can identify and implement mechanisms to eliminate reservoirs of REP strains or otherwise limit contamination of produce or other foods. Key priorities include:
- Phenotypic and genotypic characterization of zoonotic bacterial strains that have been designated as REP strains to understand if they have unique characteristics that enhance their competitiveness and fitness within the microbial ecosystem
- Assessment of the environmental distribution of REP strains and identification of factors that influence their role within the microbial community
- Developing effective and cost-efficient tools (vaccines, probiotics, phages, other microbiome manipulations) for animals and poultry to minimize carriage and shedding of zoonotic pathogens associated with produce consumption.
- Efficient and scalable tools for manure management to quickly and reliably remove human pathogens, both to promote food safety and address soil health.
- Understanding ecology, sources and carriage of emerging pathogens such as Cyclospora cayetanesis. This should begin with developing tools to propagate the organism, or identify an appropriate surrogate, given that scientists are limited in their ability to conduct research due to the shortage of oocyts and inability to propagate. We urge USDA NIFA to consider NACMCF report on the need for and opportunities resulting from investment into research on Cyclospora cayetanensis.
- Evaluating the best methods for definitively identifying viable, infectious pathogens that are not readily culturable, including parasites and enteric viruses
- Health benefits of consumption of fresh produce and floral. There is emerging research on the breadth of health benefits of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, however, the data on specific nutritional benefits have been notoriously difficult to reproduce. It is, therefore, critical to understand the basis of this variability, as it is likely derived from the impacts of production practices, crop genotypes and their interactions with human genetics and microbiomes. We will not be able to fully capitalize on the health-promoting benefits of fresh produce until these interactions are fully understood. Further, there are few studies indicating important properties of florals in promoting mental and emotional health. We urge NIFA to invest into understanding multi-dimensional impacts of fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables on human health as well barriers (such as consumer attitudes) toward increasing consumption.
- Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management. As the horticulture industry continues to embrace systems approach, with many producers and consumers eyeing the promise of regenerative agriculture, and amidst a push to promote habitats friendly to beneficial animals, it is critical to continue to invest into optimizing Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management. Food production is not without trade-offs, and the smart use of the entire tool set of technologies and inputs is critical to feeding the exploding human population, while protecting the planet. With pollinator health continuing to be a global concern, it is critical to invest into identifying novel technologies for controlling pests that will not harm off-target organisms. NIFA has invested significantly into various environmental surveys: it is time to move beyond cataloguing issues, and toward identifying and validating pro-active, systems-based solutions for integrated pest-management.
- Water: safety and use efficiency. Modern crop production has a significant need for water. Issues in water use efficiency are inseparable from the critical need to ensure microbiological safety of water for use along the fresh produce and floral production chain. There is a critical need to develop new technologies to assure microbiological safety by improving microbiological water quality and water conveyance systems for specialty crops. Education and outreach efforts should focus on continuing water access for specialty crops and floral, and research should focus on incentivizing scale-up of technologies for smart water use. Identifying crop genotypes, soil amendments or microbial formulations that can significantly increase plant resilience to environmental stressors (including droughts) appear to be promising directions for research on increasing water use efficiency. Research on reclaimed water, green roofs, capture of rainwater can be also promising as long as it focuses on scaling up these technologies to make them economically viable for operations of size that represent modern crop production.
- Soil health. Despite decades of research, the term “soil health” continues to be vaguely defined, lacking robust metrics. If we are to make progress in promoting soil health, there need to be clear, actionable and science-based metrics for assessing soil health. Validation of the role of crop production practices (beyond conservation tillage, cover cropping and fallow) in promoting soil health is also critical.
- Data needs. The complex nature of the agri-food supply chain has led to an information-poor environment in which the consequences of contamination, waste, and food fraud are amplified. IFPA stresses the role of advanced data sciences in mitigation of these issues. Considering the industry-wide move to evolving information handling approaches, we encourage NIFA to maintain focus and funding of the physical aspects of the physical to digital information chain, with particular emphasis on:
A. The development of item-unique, secure, and inexpensive digital triggers that can be deployed on produce and packaging to enable end-to-end tracing of individual items or small batches and thereby allow the DLT back-end to reach its full potential.
B. Research into direct marking technologies that allow digital triggers to be safely formed on produce and packaging without the need for plastic labels which contribute to downstream plastic waste pollution.
We recognize NIFA’s participation in the federal Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) program. We applaud NIFA’s efforts to foster the culture of agricultural innovation, and see continued support for SBIR programs as integral to the success and competitiveness of the horticulture industry. There is a critical need to translate laboratory discoveries uncovered by USDA NIFA funding into commercialized tools for the industry.
NIFA Fellowship programs and 4-H. Preparing a globally competitive labor force has to continue to be a goal of land grant university partners through education and extension efforts. We support continued investment in programs such as the 4-H, National Needs Fellowship program and Multicultural Scholars program, and suggest that the United States would benefit from increased numbers of individuals with expertise in specialty crop production, produce safety, the intersection of climate change and sustainability with specialty crop production, and related disciplines.
Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program has already demonstrated its utility in facilitating entry and re-entry of the next generation of farmers and ranchers in ag business. We applaud NIFA’s efforts to ensure that this program is available to new farmers and ranchers exploring specialty crop production, as well as innovators, including breeders, data scientists, engineers, and others, working on increasing profitability, efficiency and sustainability of specialty crop production.
Finally, it is critical that any review panel includes senior decision makers from the industry or trade associations that represent the industry. Furthermore, it is imperative that any funded project includes a consultative body/advisory board that consists of industry scientists and decision makers to ensure that research, extension and education efforts funded through NIFA-funded projects aim to address needs that directly impact the industry and consumers. International Fresh Produce Association stands ready to provide the technical expertise and connectivity to the specialty crop industry that will support USDA, researchers, and students, in promoting specialty crops for the ultimate benefit of the consumers and the economy.