Upholding the Proud Tradition of Investing in U.S. Agriculture

Published on: 12:21PM Sep 11, 2019

For more than a century, public sector investment in agricultural research has been a major source of productivity gains for U.S. agriculture. The fourth Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. James ‘Tama Jim’ Wilson, appointed by President McKinley in 1897, established several new bureaus within the Department of Agriculture to focus on specific areas of research. Those new bureaus included Plant Industry, Entomology, Chemistry, Statistics, Soils, Biological Survey, and Forestry. During Wilson’s 16-year tenure in this position, serving Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Howard Taft, the number of USDA employees grew 450 percent, from 2,444 in 1897 to 13,858 in 1912.

During roughly the same period that in-house investment in agricultural research was establishing a foothold as a major USDA priority, an effort was being made to set up similar research activities at the state level, to enable scientists to undertake projects to develop crop varieties specifically adapted to each state’s soil and climatic conditions. The first such facility, which eventually became known as an agricultural experiment station, was set up in Middleton, Connecticut in 1875. Thirteen other states undertook construction of similar facilities prior to passage of federal legislation on this subject, the Hatch Act of 1887. Several of the early stations came into existence after their state legislatures enacted fertilizer control or inspection laws, creating a need to establish facilities with appropriate personnel to enforce the new law. The newly established state agricultural experiment stations (SAES) were staffed with researchers from the faculty of the state’s land grant universities.

Secretary Wilson believed that investing in this effort, both within USDA and at the state level, could make the United States the world’s leader in agriculture in the twentieth century. During Wilson’s lengthy tenure, USDA funding increased from $3.6 million in 1897 to $25.4 million in 1913—a large share of that increase went for establishing new areas of research inquiry. Total agricultural output across the country more than doubled during this period, and net agricultural exports grew in value from $23 million to nearly $425 million.

An extensive set of empirical analyses have found that spending on agricultural research and development is essential for bolstering agricultural productivity. Since it can take as long as 30 years for the full benefits of research results to be realized in commercial agricultural production, the initial investment made by USDA, in both intramural and SAES research, during this period reverberated well into the twentieth century, just as Secretary Wilson had predicted.

That proud USDA tradition established at the end of the 19th century continues today. Over the last 140 years, essential agricultural innovations and techniques such as developing hybrid crops, wiping out animal diseases such as bovine tuberculosis, inventing biodegradable food packaging, optimizing pesticide and fertilizer application rates, and eradication of the cotton boll weevil all came out of research conducted by USDA and/or land grant university scientists.
According to a policy paper written by Dr. Phil Pardey, Dr. Julian Alston, and Ms. Connie Chan Kang in 2013, U.S. agriculture had produced more than five times the quantity of agricultural output as of 2007 (as measured by an index aggregating the quantities of all crop and livestock products) than was produced in 1910. The 1.74 percent per year increase in output from over that 97-year period was achieved with only a 0.15 percent per year increase in the total quantity of inputs (as measured by an index aggregating quantities of labor, capital, land, and purchased inputs such as agricultural chemicals and seeds).

As discussed in my blog on August 2, farmers around the world will have to increase agricultural production between 50 and 70 percent in order to feed a global population projected to be 9.7 billion by 2050. Increased investment in agricultural research to continue to bolster agricultural productivity for both American farmers and farmers around the world must be a crucial component of that effort.

The legislation introduced on September 10 by Senator Richard Durbin (D, IL), the America Grows Act of 2019, seeks to address those needs, by authorizing increased funding levels over the next five years for the four agencies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture that focus on conducting agricultural research and collecting agricultural statistics. These agencies are the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Economic Research Service (ERS), and the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Under this bill, funding would increase five percent per year over that period, adjusted for inflation. Total agricultural research funding at these agencies, which would exclude funding for extension programs overseen by NIFA, would increase from $2.92 billion in fiscal year 2019 to $3.82 billion by fiscal year 2024.