June 23, 2021

PMA comments on USDA’s Farm of the Future competitive grant program

The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) welcomes the opportunity to provide stakeholder input in response to the USDA NIFA request for input related to the establishment of a new Farm of the Future competitive grant program under the Section 799 of the FY2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bill.

It provided $4 million to NIFA, “for a competitive grant to an institution in the land-grant university system to establish a Farm of the Future testbed and demonstration site.”

PMA is the leading trade association representing companies from every segment of the global produce and floral supply chain. PMA represents more than 2,600 member companies in over 40 countries around the world. Our members operate at every level in the supply chain from growing, shipping, processing, distribution, wholesaling, retail, and foodservice. In the U.S., it is estimated that PMA members handle more than 90% of fresh fruits and vegetables. PMA also represents the floral sector in mass retail, which accounts for the majority of floral sold in the U.S. PMA’s vision is to bring together the global fresh produce and floral community to grow a healthier world. PMA helps members grow by providing connections that expand business opportunities and increase sales and consumption. Regardless of size or scope of operations, our members are committed at every level to improving the health and well-being of consumers.

As USDA NIFA develops the RFA for an integrated Farm of the Future competitive program, it is critical to invest resources into supporting research, extension and education efforts aimed at developing new technologies that will increase profitability, sustainability and resiliency of the fresh produce supply chain. Our nation faces a pandemic of diet-related illnesses. USDA estimates that 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. The high rates of overweight and obesity are an important public health problem in and of themselves, and they are a driver for prevalent diet-related chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. At present, six in 10 Americans have a chronic condition and four in 10 Americans have two or more chronic conditions. The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University estimates that each year in the U.S., the health costs of cardiovascular disease are around $316 billion, the yearly cost of diabetes in the U.S. is $327 billion.

Healthy diets, rich in fruits and vegetables, are critical to health of all Americans. Horticulture is a key component of the U.S. economy, supporting livelihoods of millions of farmers throughout the county. The fresh fruit, vegetable and floral supply chain is a source of income for millions of Americans who work in the production, packaging, distribution, processing, and retail of fresh produce.

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 only for human consumption. 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, a diverse and robust fresh produce supply chain is necessary to address the nutritional security needs of billions of Americans living in the 10.5% of American households that are considered food insecure. It is critical, therefore, to prioritize horticultural research through the new Farm of the Future program.

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:

  1. Climate-smart agriculture. Fresh produce and floral industries play a unique role in a responsible stewardship of our Nation’s limited natural resources. A number of PMA and industry environmental priorities align with USDA and EPA Climate 21 Project recommendations, including reduction of atmospheric greenhouse gases through carbon sequestration and emissions reductions, promoting bio-based and recyclable packaging, and investing in natural climate solutions. We see a critical need to:
    • 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.
    • Education and outreach efforts should focus on continuing water access for specialty crops and floral and research should focus on incentivizing the scale-up of technologies for smart water use.
    • Understand basic science behind crop-specific conservation practices that sequester atmospheric carbon. Research is critically needed to develop valuation metrics for carbon-sequestration in specialty crops.
    • Conduct research to assess economic viability and sustainability of regenerative agriculture.
  2. Labor. 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. It is critical that 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 is paramount. Preparing globally competitive labor force must continue to be a goal of land grant university partners through education and extension efforts.
  3. 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. Key priorities for biotechnology research and adoption include:
    • Identification and release of genotypes and tools to manipulate them to develop varieties that can be grown in new environments (including indoors) and have superior taste and nutritional properties.
    • Understanding consumer perception and overcoming barriers to consumer acceptance of genetic traits that make specialty crop production more efficient and sustainable.
  4. 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 biodegradable stickers for fresh produce to replace existing plastic PLU stickers.
  5. 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 and vegetables.

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 this project aim to address needs that directly impact the industry and consumers.

— Produce Marketing Association

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