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Report shows how ag research funding can supercharge U.S. industry

Coalition warns of need for additional investment in order to remain globally competitive.

A newly released report shows how U.S. farmers — facing a surge of weather events and disease outbreaks — can increase production and revenues with innovations produced by federally funded agricultural research but warns that more investment in agricultural research is needed to prevent falling further behind China.

According to the report issued by the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation and 20 FedByScience research institutions, agricultural research and development (R&D) funding has an estimated return on investment of 20 to 1. While other federal research investments have grown, however, the report said U.S. agricultural research funding has stagnated. China, on the hand, invests nearly twice as much as the U.S. in agricultural science.

The report, “Retaking the Field: Science Breakthroughs for Thriving Farms & a Healthier Nation,” highlights research projects in the five "science breakthroughs" areas identified as the most important fields to advance in agriculture by 2030: genomics, microbiomes, sensors, data and informatics and transdisciplinary research. These areas were determined by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine as part of a widespread scientific effort to prioritize agricultural research endeavors.

“Investments in these five science breakthroughs will allow us to achieve a number of broader goals for food and agriculture in the U.S. in the next decade, but these advancements aren’t possible without federal funding for the research needed to tackle agriculture’s greatest problems” SoAR president Thomas Grumbly said. “Farmers are getting hammered right now, and they need innovation to at least soften the blows.”

Representatives from the agricultural and science sectors convened earlier this year to identify research goals that can only be achieved through advancing the five science breakthroughs areas. By 2030, innovations in agricultural research like the projects highlighted in this report can:

  • Reduce water use in agriculture by 20%;
  • Reduce fertilizer use by 15%;
  • Significantly reduce the need for fungicides and pesticides in plant production;
  • Radically reduce the incidence of infectious disease epidemics for livestock;
  • Reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses by 50%, and
  • Increase the availability of new plant varieties and animal products to deliver food with enhanced nutrient content.

“Now is the time to double down on federal investments in agricultural research,” Grumbly said. “There are urgent needs to produce more food, fiber and fuel while consuming fewer resources and protecting public health in the face of existing and emerging threats.”

The report shows how scientists funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) are leveraging federal resources to advance the five breakthroughs areas. Four scientists featured in the report will meet with legislators in Washington, D.C., on March 27 to explain how their federally funded research is making an impact on agriculture.

Dr. P. Stephen Baenziger with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will highlight wheat, which provides 20% of the protein and 20% of the calories consumed by people around the world. Wheat is a self-pollinated crop, which means it doesn't get a genetic boost by crossing inbred parent lines. Baenziger and his team are working to change wheat from a self-pollinated crop to a cross-pollinated crop to take advantage of “hybrid vigor,” because hybrid offspring often have improved yields, nutrients and tolerance of droughts and other adverse conditions.

Dr. Archie Williams from Fort Valley State University will discuss how the use of cameras mounted on aerial drones has expanded to agricultural communities. Williams and his team are currently working with farmers to develop and disseminate applications that work with imagery provided by drones to identify problematic regions in crop fields, diagnose the issues and provide the appropriate response.

Dr. Raj Khosla with Colorado State University will share how his work addresses the practice of farmers applying crop inputs uniformly across the field – a “one-size-fits-all” approach that leads to over- and under-application of water and nitrogen in parts of the crop fields. By developing precision management techniques, Khosla and his team want to minimize nitrogen and water losses without reducing yield. The benefits are far-reaching; by using precision nitrogen management, for example, farmers can earn an additional $17 per acre.

Last, Dr. Matthew Ruark from the University of Wisconsin-Madison will talk about the growing demand to decrease the environmental impact of agriculture and how he and his team collect and analyze best practices for the dairy industry to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, lower nitrogen and phosphorus runoff — in both the Great Lakes region and across the U.S. — and boost the sector’s efficiency and profits.

Other agricultural research stories featured in the new report include topics such as using genetics to improve health and disease resistance in pigs, harnessing soil and root microbiomes to increase crop productivity, improving feed efficiency and nutrition for sustainable beef, deploying sensors to safeguard the food supply, developing new tools to understand animal genetics, using computing technology to individualize livestock diets and improving bee health to benefit farmers.

The full report can be viewed here.

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