Sustainable nutrition science could help solve climate and health crises. Why isn’t the federal government funding more of it?

September 16, 2021
USDA
Sarah Reinhardt
Senior Analyst, Food Systems and Health

A new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that federal funding for “sustainable nutrition science”—a field of research and education at the intersection of food production, climate and environment, and nutrition—is abysmally low, amounting to less than 25 cents out of every thousand dollars in federal research funding.

These findings come as Congress continues debate over a reconciliation bill with a 10-year spending plan dedicating an impressive $7.6 billion to agricultural research, more than half of which is focused on climate change. These investments in research are welcome news, particularly as events like wildfires, extreme heat, and droughts plague the country with alarming frequency. Yet it’s hard to talk about agriculture and climate without talking about their impacts on human health. Climate change is directly linked to food production, which is directly linked to health and nutrition, all of which is underpinned by histories of deep racial and economic injustice that perpetuate present-day health inequities—including vulnerability to climate change. It’s a vicious cycle, and we have been largely unsuccessful in disrupting it.

What if we were intentional about leveraging public research dollars to address these issues simultaneously? What would it mean for our understanding of the “big picture” view of agriculture, climate, and health, and most importantly, our ability to change what that picture looks like for future generations?

We’re not there yet, but we have a window of opportunity that we can’t afford to miss. Our findings highlight a dire need for additional funding for this critical area of research, as well as the adoption of a “systems thinking” framework across federal research agencies that could leave us far better prepared to face the climate and health crises that lie ahead.

Systems thinking leads to strategic long-term solutions

What is systems thinking?

If you’ve ever spent time with a two-year-old, you already know a little bit about it. Here’s what it can sound like:

Me: Our food systems are not sustainable.

Two-year-old: Why?

Too many people are already sick because of the food we produce (or the food we don’t produce) and how we produce it. This will get much worse if we don’t do some things differently.

Why?

Because we might not have enough clean water, healthy soil, and land to produce food anymore. And the people who will suffer the most might not be heard by people with power.

Why?

And so on. While this hypothetical exchange is an oversimplification, our toddler is onto something. If you keep asking why, you’ll likely ultimately find the root cause or causes of a problem, which in turn allows you to pinpoint the most promising long-term solutions and levers for change. Systems thinking can also help connect problems (like diet-related disease and climate change) that might share common contributing factors (like policies that prioritize corporate interests over the public good, for example). This is incredibly useful for an entity, such as the government, with finite resources and an interest in maximizing its return on investments. Why invest in a solution that can solve one problem when you can invest in a solution that can solve two?

Of course, when the health and wellbeing of millions of people are on the line, answering the question “why?” can require some serious scientific research. And according to our findings, the federal government is falling far short of the investments it needs to make in systems-oriented sustainable nutrition science.

Federal funding for sustainable nutrition science is a drop in the bucket

A very small drop in a very large bucket, to be more precise.

We estimate that a mere $15.7 million was awarded to projects in sustainable nutrition science each year between fiscal years 2016 and 2019. That’s about one fiftieth of one percent of the $73.2 billion in annual research investments made across the entire federal government across this same time period, and only a slightly larger fraction of the $52.3 billion that makes up the research budgets of agencies in the Interagency Council on Human Nutrition Research.

For comparison, previous UCS research has shown that healthier eating could save $50 billion in health care costs during a single year. This is to say nothing of the additional costs of biodiversity loss, environmental pollution, and climate change impacts associated with prevailing methods of food production.

Who receives this funding also matters. As my colleague once wrote, justice and sustainability in the food system cannot be separated. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that few research projects incorporated considerations related to health equity or food justice. Out of 53 projects in sustainable nutrition science, only 10 named health disparities (e.g., socioeconomic, racial) in the context of project goals, while just five stated the intent to address economic or educational inequities. Researchers from historically Black colleges or universities led only four projects; one project was led in partnership with a tribal college, two projects by tribal organizations, and one by a farmworker organization. That’s a problem—and not a small one. If science is ever to be effective in addressing racial disparities in health and healthcare, which remain a fixture in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it must be designed and led by the people and communities most affected.

From silos to systems: A call for more (and more effective) research funding

We are calling on the federal government to invest at least $50 million annually in sustainable nutrition science—triple the current allocation, according to our findings. This increase is justified by the large number of unfunded proposals submitted to grant programs at agencies such as the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the National institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, which funded the majority of sustainable nutrition science projects identified in our analysis. Funding rates or “success rates” in these programs range from 10 to 33 percent, meaning as few as one in ten projects receives funding.

It is essential that this research, as well as the funding requirements set by federal research agencies, incorporate the sort of systems thinking described above, encouraging multidisciplinary approaches in both new and existing programs and prioritizing researchers and institutions representing marginalized populations. This may also require new agency roles and partnerships that can help improve collaboration and coordination of research needs and objectives. Much of this new infrastructure, which could also support the advancement of nutrition research more broadly, has already been proposed by leading health and nutrition experts.

Although recent action by Congress and the Biden administration could signal progress on national policy priorities such as climate change, nutrition security, and racial equity, the nation doesn’t have a minute to waste in improving our approach to research. In the reconciliation bill and beyond, it’s imperative that the federal government moves to support sustainable nutrition science to match the urgency and magnitude of the ecological and public health crises at hand.