Published on: 14:50PM Nov 20, 2013
By Hope Pjesky: Goltry, Oklahoma
On October 7, three American scientists shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries on how cells transport molecules. It was a triumph not just for the three men, but also for a type of institution where two of them work - the "Medical Research Organization" (MRO). Created by Congress in 1956, MRO’s were designed to promote private philanthropy into the study of human health.
For more than half a century, MROs have helped people live longer and healthier lives. More than 200 now operate in the United States, ranging from Michigan’s Van Andel Research Institute to Maryland’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which employs two of the recent Nobel laureates.
Now it’s time to take the proven approach of MROs to solving big problems and adapt it to what may be the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century: Growing enough food to keep pace with a world population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050.
The Charitable Agricultural Research Act (CARA), a bill with bipartisan support, would modify the federal tax code to allow the creation of "Agricultural Research Organizations" (ARO) which would use private dollars to improve nutrition and food production. In the fight for global food security, AROs would help develop crops that make better use of water and nitrogen, defeat diseases such as citrus greening, and come up with ways to grow more food on less land.
Demographers estimate that farmers and ranchers like me will have to double their food production between now and the middle of the century, just to keep pace with population growth as well as the demands of an emerging middle class in China, India, and elsewhere. As we work to achieve this ambitious goal, we’ll have to attend to environmental concerns, resource depletion, and volatile weather.
That’s a tall order, and it will require all the scientific ingenuity we can muster. Right now, the United States spends tens of billions on scientific research every year, but the amount that supports competitive agricultural research comes to less than $500 million. Worldwide, only about 5 percent of all scientific funding focuses on agriculture.
AROs would build food and agricultural research capacity in the United States by channeling private philanthropic dollars. Just as MROs must collaborate with hospitals, AROs would be required to work with land-grant and agricultural colleges. Best of all, in an era of debt ceilings and tight budgets, AROs would not require new government spending.
This is a mainstream idea that has already garnered broad, national support, including dozens of farm groups and universities across the country.
In congressional testimony earlier this year, Steven Rhines of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation illustrated the potential of AROs. If a new law generates only 10 of these groups with individual research budgets of $25 million—a conservative estimate, he said—their combined efforts would boost public agricultural research by 50 percent.
On a purely economic level, that’s good news: Studies suggest that every $1 of agricultural research returns $10 in benefits.
Additionally, AROs would create jobs in the American heartland. This is a positive side effect rather than their main purpose.
The goal of AROs would be to help feed a hungry planet through scientific innovation. The United Nations says that there are already 1 billion undernourished people in the world. As we struggle to provide the food for an additional 2 billion people by 2050, we’ll have to find ways to encourage our brightest minds to innovate.
Next year marks the centenary of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. His agricultural improvements are sometimes credited with saving a billion lives. For this accomplishment, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
We shouldn’t merely hope for a future in which the Nobel Foundation honors the Borlaugs of the 21st century. We must create the conditions for this actually to happen.
Congress should pass CARA right away, President Obama should sign it into law, and we should let AROs help us confront one of history’s greatest tests.