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President gives ag research greater priorityPresident gives ag research greater priority

Budget request proposes to fully fund USDA's Agriculture & Food Research Initiative.

Jacqui Fatka

February 3, 2016

5 Min Read
President gives ag research greater priority

In the seven years since the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture & Food Research Initiative (AFRI) was established, this is the first year the President plans to request the full $700 million for the competitive, peer-reviewed grants program for fundamental and applied agricultural sciences.

President Barack Obama plans to request $700 million for AFRI in his 2017 budget, slated for full release next week. The AFRI budget proposal includes $375 million in the discretionary request and a legislative action to make available $325 million in mandatory funding as part of a government-wide investment in research and development. If realized, it would double the amount available in 2016.


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in recent years, with sequester limitations and 50% of the USDA budget going towards the Women, Infants & Children program, forest fires, rental assistance and food safety, it has somewhat constrained USDA's ability to increase research funding. However, the budget deal reached in 2014 gives the President the opportunity to finally meet the pledged $700 million amount called for in the 2008 farm bill and reauthorized in the 2014 farm bill. Congress still will need to decide whether to fund AFRI at the requested amount.

Each year, the Administration has asked for more from Congress, and Vilsack said Congress has been helpful. “However, the time has come for agricultural research to take its place alongside other important issues, such as health care,” Vilsack said. He added that every dollar spent on agricultural research returns $20 in benefits to the economy.

Since its creation, AFRI has been funded at less than half the levels established in the 2008 farm bill, and USDA has been able to fund only one out of 10 research proposals presented. While grants awarded to universities, nonprofits, community groups, businesses, foundations, associations and federal agency and international partnerships have led to significant achievements that address critical issues related to agriculture, food, the environment and communities, thousands of innovative research proposals have been left unfunded.

The competitive process AFRI uses to award grants applies the best scientific research to the challenges that farmers and consumers face. Funding is based on merit, and proposals are rigorously peer-reviewed. In the last four years, AFRI's review process identified $3.85 billion in grants worthy of funding. However, with a limited annual budget, the program could award only $950 million — less than a quarter of the science that the program's expert panels deemed worthy.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA's National Institute of Food & Agriculture, which administers AFRI, said, “Since AFRI was established, it has been funded only at or below half of its authorized level. Nutritional security is a matter of national security. In fiscal 2014, NIFA was only able to fund slightly over 10% of research proposals we received.

“Funding shortfalls become even more daunting when one considers the urgency of new and invasive species of pests, antimicrobial resistance, pollinator health, sustainability, poor public health and nutritional outcomes and the need for innovations for advanced manufacturing and economic enterprises,” Ramaswamy continued. “Funding research to respond to these challenges should be considered as an investment in our nation's future — an investment that will pay big dividends in the years to come.”

Ramaswamy added that AFRI also funds education and training for the undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers needed for the nation's agricultural workforce.

“Industry and public institutions depend on an educated workforce to fill innovation jobs. The national employment opportunities outlook for agricultural fields predicts that approximately 58,000 job openings per year will occur from now through 2020; America's educational institutions in these fields are able to produce only approximately 35,500 graduates, leaving a gap of approximately 22,500 vacant positions needed for addressing complex agricultural problems,” he said.

“In this highly competitive environment, many talented scientists and researchers are unable to get funding and, as a result, are leaving agricultural sciences at a time when the need for their innovation is greatest or taking their expertise to other countries that are more supportive of public sector research,” Ramaswamy said.

The Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation welcomed the request. “The recent avian flu outbreak and historic drought in California emphasized the need for more innovations in agriculture,” said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a SoAR Foundation board member. “A fully funded AFRI will attract the best scientists and stimulate needed research to address national priorities like food safety, public health, plant and animal science and increasing production.”

In the 1940s, almost 40% of American research and development spending was focused on agriculture. Today, agricultural research only accounts for 2% of federal research and development spending. According to USDA, total agricultural production has slowed significantly since the turn of the century.

“With this budget, the Administration has assured agricultural research as part of its legacy,” said Thomas Grumbly, SoAR Foundation president. “It's now Congress' turn to make this a priority for the sake of our economic competitiveness, national security and the well-being of people today and into the future.”

As part of the announcement, USDA also announced the latest round of 80 new research projects funded through AFRI. Read the full story by clicking here.

View a fact sheet on the President's budget to invest $700 million in AFRI.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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