Congress Needs to Pay More Attention to Ag Research


by Chris Clayton DTN Ag Policy Editor

AGree's leaders issued a paper breaking down issues surrounding research and development in agriculture and food production. The group AGree was formed to seek consensus among different stakeholders on policy areas important to agriculture. The group's various policy papers are meant to influence debate leading up the next farm bill and other major policies affecting food production.…

Former Ag Secretary Dan Glickman, one of AGree's co-chairs, said in an interview that Congress needs to hearings analyzing research priorities for food and agricultural production. He and others at AGree had spoken with the chairman and ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee and would like to do the same with the chair and ranking member on the House side as well.

AGree notes in its report that Congress is relatively lax when it comes to addressing agricultural research needs. A 2012 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology called on more competitive funding programs and a rebalancing of agricultural research. Still, Congress failed to hold any hearings to examine public food and ag research while drafting the 2014 farm bill.

As important as agricultural research is, it doesn't get the priority that the National Institute of Health gets or the National Science Foundation. Since 1976, federal funding at NIH has gone from $7 billion to roughly $30 billion and the National Science Foundation has seen its annual federal funding move from $2 billion to more than $5 billion. USDA's pot of money has changed little in comparison. As a result, the private sector now invests more in food R&D than the federal government.

“Somehow we have got to elevate the discussion of food and agriculture so it is kind of viewed equivocally to these other challenges so the public gets it as well,” Glickman said. “It's just not inside the world of food and agriculture that we are doing this for.”

Still, Congress did make some changes in the farm bill and work to spur more research. Glickman also is chairman of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, which was created in the 2014 farm bill specifically to elevate some of the research needs raised in the AGree report. The foundation has $200 million in funding with a mandate that whatever projects or work it funds should have at least an equal outside match. Glickman said the foundation is just getting its staff put together, but could have some funding announcements later this year.

“Congress has responded in the sense that they created this Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, which is in large part a recognition we need to spend more money on agricultural research,” Glickman said. He added that more innovative and novel types of work are needed. “The foundation in effect is kind of an advance response to what we are talking about and for that they should be applauded.”

From a bigger picture, though, Congress needs to examine whether agriculture is equipped to deal with water shortages and availability, plant disease, animal disease, climate change, weather variability and diet changes. Longer-term strategies are needed to deal with these issues, he said. Such an analysis needs to look at how farmers are going to sustainably feed the world while still having a health, profitable agricultural system.

“Our bigger point is the challenges to improve production over the next 20, 30 or 40 years are so gigantic that it really would be a good thing for Congress to do a top-to-bottom review through a series of hearings on the whole concept of what kind of research projects we ought to be funding over the long-term,” Glickman said.

Such a discussion should look at how the federal government can work best with the private sector, land-grant and non-land grant universities. Further, work is needed to deal with redundancy in some areas where different institutions are all examining similar issues.

While Glickman doesn’t see cataclysmic events for U.S. agriculture, but he notes certain parts of the world could fast catastrophe over food production and needs. “And if we don't have systems to deal with this, either in plant systems or storage systems, then you could see millions of people impacted,” Glickman said.

The strategy is to increase overall food an agricultural research funding to examine emerging challenges and opportunities.

“We know we need to make these investments count,” said former Kathleen Merrigan, an AGree co-chair and former deputy USDA secretary. “It's time to take a very deep-dive look at our research enterprise.”

AGree proposes to increase public funding for agricultural research outside of just USDA, such as at the Department of Energy or Health and Human Services. Further, some consolidation and reorganization could take place at USDA programs to put more emphasis on areas with the greatest potential impact. Also, funding should be redirected to high priority areas and not overlap with work already being done in the private sector.

AGree’s now plants to pull together a group of ag thought leaders to work more aggressively on public funding as well as advocate for changes in USDA's Research, Education and Economics (REE) mandate. The group also will work to promote more data sharing among various federal state and non-governmental organizations regarding research efforts.…


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