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Research Under Siege

September 30, 2011
By: Ed Clark, Top Producer Business and Issues Editor
research under siege
With work on the new farm bill in full swing, Indiana farmer John Hardin is opposed to across-the-board cuts that would include research funds for land-grant universities.  

Budget hits put U.S. competitiveness at risk

The facts are sobering. At the same time that research investment is proving crucial to meeting food demands which promise only to explode in the decades ahead, the U.S. is pulling back on publicly financed agricultural research at land-grant universities. What’s more, some major U.S. competitors are increasing their investment in ag research at a faster rate while U.S. investment has stagnated, raising questions about future markets for American farmers.

Why are ag research dollars more scarce? U.S. and state government budgets are increasingly under attack, and agriculture, often fractionalized, is an easy target.

"It’s a little disturbing that Brazil and China are increasing their investments" at the same time the U.S. is sliding, says George Norton, an agricultural economist at Virginia Tech. Norton spoke at a press conference on the topic in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Farm Foundation.

Norton notes that public research funding showed a 3.2% annual growth rate from 1960 to 1979, no growth at all from 1980 to 1989 and only 0.6% per year from 1990 to 2009. As a result, average U.S. annual agriculture productivity growth has begun to slow. From 2000 to 2006, the average ag productivity growth rate was only 1.76% in developed countries but 2.08% in developing countries. The average growth rate was 3.66% in Brazil and 3.22% in China, both more than double that of the U.S.

"The competitive position of U.S. farmers is affected," Norton states.

"There are serious consequences if we fail to invest or if we disinvest," says Michael Martin, Louisiana State University chancellor. The world population is expected to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, with an expanding middle class in developing nations that want more animal protein.

"We need the next generation of Norman Borlaugs," says Robert Steele, a food scientist at Pennsylvania State University. Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is credited with being the father of the Green Revolution and saving more than a billion people from starvation.

"When you fund research, you are creating the next generation of scientists that will solve future problems. Not doing so puts the future at great risk," LSU’s Martin adds. "The future of agriculture is at stake."

Many areas of ag research, such as gene mapping, have led to improvements for human health, so it’s not just an issue of ag research, he adds.

Not the time to stop. "Now is not the time to back away," says John Hardin, a grain and hog producer in Danville, Ind. He believes land-grant institutions do the basic and applied research that allows farmers to be competitive.

"The world is changing. We will need more research to help mitigate climate change and a whole host of issues," says Hardin, who leads the Farm Bill Task Force for the Farm Foundation. He believes that research benefits farmers and the entire ag community, which is why he opposes across-the-board cuts and attaches a higher priority to research than to some other potential components of the new farm bill.

A.G. Kawamura, an Irvine, Calif., vegetable grower and former secretary of the California Department of Agriculture, says his family’s farm is a product of the land-grant system. "We used one of the early machine tomato harvesters in the 1960s," he says, which was developed by the University of California, Davis.

Kawamura says that when it comes to obtaining adequate funding, land-grant universities face the challenge of consumers seeing a story of abundance and not realizing how fragile the system actually is. "How many people understand both the global and regional food system?" he asks.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - October 2011
RELATED TOPICS: Policy, Research

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