Commitment to and research in food and agricultural microbiology is on the decline despite the ever-present threats to the food supply posed by disease, spoilage and the specter of bio-terrorism.
"The constant spread and evolution of agricultural pathogens provides a continually renewed source of challenges to productivity and food safety," said Michael Doyle of the University of Georgia, a co-author of the report by the American Academy of Microbiology entitled Research Opportunities in Food and Agriculture Microbiology.
"However, research support over the last few decades has been lean and is, in fact, decreasing."
Ongoing growth in the global €3.2 trillion food production, processing, distribution and preparation industries has led to growing pressure on the food chain to minimise outbreaks of food borne diseases. In industrialised countries, the percentage of people suffering from foodborne diseases each year has been reported to be up to 30 per cent.
In the US alone, sixty-one deaths and 73,000 illnesses - such as bloody diarrhoea and haemorrhagic colitis - are blamed on eating foods contaminated with E. coli each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the University of Georgia report casts doubt that enough is being done to improve the situation.
Trouble recruiting and maintaining graduate students is also harming programs and will ultimately affect the field, said Doyle.
"Reversing the decline in funding and recognition of the value of agricultural research requires fundamental changes, in addition to an infusion of financial support," he said.
Disease-causing microbes continually assault the animals and crops that humans raise for food. Some of the more famous examples include foot and mouth disease, an outbreak of which led to the slaughter of more than six million animals in England in 2001, and potato late blight, which caused the great potato famine in Ireland in the 19th Century.
A new variant of the blight emerged in the United States in the 1980s causing serious losses and even bankruptcy for some potato growers.
Microorganisms continue to cause harm to the food supply beyond the farm, causing spoilage and, in some cases poisoning and disease. Additionally, the global movement of agricultural products, industrial agricultural processes and the potential for malicious release of pathogens by bioterrorists add new vulnerabilities.
In addition to the threats, microorganisms can also benefit the food supply, helping to preserve foods or acting as probiotics.
"Beneficial microbes cultivated in food can provide added value far beyond delay or prevention of spoilage," said Doyle. "Deepening understanding of the nature of such probiotic effects and elucidating ways that these can be strengthened will allow scientists to capitalize further on the beneficial effects of these microbes."
The report is the outcome of a colloquium convened by the American Academy of Microbiology. Nineteen scientists with expertise in areas ranging from plant pathology to food microbiology to microbial ecology met to examine the future of food and agriculture microbiology.
The report, which can be found on the academy website offers recommendations for research priorities and identifies barriers to a strong food and agriculture research agenda.