As the policy discussions that shape the 2018 farm bill begin to heat up, the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing Thursday to discuss the importance of agricultural research.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) opened the hearing with remarks noting that China, India and Brazil have significantly increased their investment in agricultural research over the past decade. “China now has a two-to-one advantage over the U.S. in critical public investments to address emerging pests, disease and extreme weather in the agricultural sector. If we allow our country to slip behind in agricultural research, our farmers could lose their global competitiveness,” she said.
Support for agricultural research has remained strong, yet the funds have not always been there to back it up. Before the Senate agricultural appropriations subcommittee Tuesday, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue voiced strong support for the need to fund public and private agricultural research.
“I think research is one of those areas where we may have missed the mark,” Perdue told the senators. “I believe we can work to right-size the budget, because research is really the basis for our agricultural productivity today.”
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) said the committee has its work cut out for it with the farm bill reauthorization.
“We will need to find ways to do more with less, to reduce burdens of over-regulation and ask tough questions as we re-examine programs to determine their effectiveness and if they are serving their intended purpose,” Roberts said. “Strong public/private partnerships have been the cornerstone of U.S. agricultural research.”
Agricultural research got a boost in the 2014 farm bill with the creation of the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR). To date, FFAR has delivered $32.4 million via 22 grants with more than 41 funding partners, representing a unique combination of private and public funding to meet high-priority research needs.
FFAR executive director Sally Rockey explained that FFAR leverages public funding — more than doubling that funding — for the public good and, in the process, develops a new community of partners. It also distinguishes itself from other government-established research foundations because of its independence, which allows them to focus almost exclusively on results.
Rockey said since the foundation is now fully staffed and has developed the systems and structures to contribute to its long-term sustainability, the value and volume of award announcements will continue to pick up throughout 2017 and 2018. “Over the next five years, FFAR will become a pivotal player in the food and agriculture research community,” Rockey testified.
Former American Soybean Assn. president and Nebraska farmer Steve Wellman called on Congress to renew American leadership in agricultural science, including by fully funding the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the flagship competitive grants program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wellman, who testified on behalf of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation (SoAR), told the committee that the ancestry of virtually every topic discussed in the farm bill can be traced to research.
“We need three things to get American agriculture growing: sun, rain and research,” Wellman said in prepared remarks included in his testimony. “Sufficient federal investment and wise policies are essential if the United States is to continue to be a global leader in agriculture.”
In his testimony, Wellman also noted that “the 2008 farm bill authorized AFRI at $700 million annually, yet today funding has reached only the halfway point of that level. As a percentage of total federal research investment, USDA has fallen to less than 3% of the annual federal investment.”
Put another way, research funding for other federal agencies is nearly $60 billion, while research funding at the USDA research mission area tops out at just more than $2 billion -- an amount that has remained virtually unchanged for decades, Wellman noted.
“Traditionally, we have thought of agriculture science in terms of improving yields, preventing soil erosion and adapting crops to a variety of growing conditions. Today, agriculture stands to realize significant gains through interdisciplinary research across numerous scientific fields, including data science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, biologicals and genomics,” Wellman said. “To capitalize on these relatively modern fields of science, we need to ensure we have a modern federal research enterprise.”