Research Under Siege

September 30, 2011 01:25 PM
Research Under Siege

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.

There is a critical risk if the food system becomes broken, Kawamura says. It’s important for agriculture to reach out and include groups in discussions on the importance of ag research, even those that may have different views on the future of agriculture.

"We have to be concerned about the future food supply," says Luther Tweeten, professor emeritus of economics at The Ohio State University. "The era of cheap food is over. We’ve stagnated [in the public sector] for 10 years, although we’ve done better in the private sector."

One point that concerns Tweeten and others is that when it comes to yields, the percentage increase of productivity has declined. In the 1950s, yields were increasing at a rate of 3%; now they’re down to 1.4% annually.

He adds that the rate of return from agricultural research is 40% to 50%, "and those figures don’t come from land-grant institutions but from the University of Chicago and Yale."

Public versus private. As federal and state governments are squeezed for cash, why can’t the private sector help pay for ag research?

"They can’t do it all," Tweeten says. Furthermore, the private sector, while an important factor, is not likely to invest in basic research that does not show an immediate profit, or research that is shared industrywide.

Paul Carter, senior agronomy sciences manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred, says training students at public universities is necessary to supply field, lab research and plant breeding employees. In addition, it’s important to have an independent source of research for improved genetics and agronomic advances. In his view, funding of public research will play a major role—along with private research—in achieving the 300-bu.-per-acre corn yield goal.

"No doubt, we need both [public and private] research and partnerships," says Jay Akridge, dean of agriculture at Purdue University. Some areas, he adds, do not lend themselves as well to private research, like emerging crops and environmental issues.

So why, ultimately, is agricultural research under siege? "We haven’t done a good job explaining why agricultural research is needed," says Wendy Wintersteen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Iowa State University. "Agriculture is a biological system. People don’t understand how very delicate that system is."

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