A 21st-century investment in productive, sustainable agriculture
© Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture

On March 15, 2016, more than 550 farmers, food producers and processors, student leaders, private-sector businesses, and representatives from universities and rural communities visited Washington to celebrate National Agriculture (AG) Day. Held each year since 1973, National AG Day helps consumers, the administration and Congress understand how farmers grow safe and affordable food, and underscores the essential role of agriculture in maintaining both a strong economy and national food security.

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A key concern expressed by many of those participating in National AG Day this year was the need for greater investments in the very foundation of American agriculture: the research, development and extension services required to maintain the high productivity and environmental sustainability of American farmers and ranchers and to provide sufficient nutritious food, fiber and biofuel for a growing world.

To address this need for investment in research, the House Subcommittee on Agriculture Appropriations held a hearing a day after National AG Day to consider the Obama administration's funding request for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) research, education and extension portion of the fiscal 2017 budget. In her opening statement at the hearing, Catherine Woteki, USDA under secretary for research, education and economics, stated that "We are facing enormous challenges in American agriculture."

These challenges include the multiyear drought in California and many Western states; threats from disease affecting livestock, poultry and citrus crops; nutrition and obesity-related health issues; and a troubling shortage of young farmers and veterinarians choosing agriculture as a profession.

So why is research, education and extension so important to solving these challenges?

As the global population adds 2.3 billion more people by 2050, and as dietary diversity increases, farmers in the United States and around the world will be called upon to produce more food with little or no increase in arable land and water use. Agricultural productivity — producing more food, feed, fiber and biofuel using less land, water, livestock and other inputs — is a critical strategy to help feed the world, and to minimize agriculture's environmental impact.

Research and development (R&D) investments, and the capacity to extend new innovations to farmers, are some of the most important predictors of a country's ability to increase the productivity and sustainability of its agriculture system. The United States is a global leader in agricultural innovation and a renewed and robust investment in the research capacity of our agriculture systems will bring new solutions for many of the 21st-century challenges that farmers and producers face around the world.

Over the past century, productivity in U.S. agriculture has resulted from a collaborative and sustained commitment based on a powerful system of public and private agricultural R&D that boosted innovation in crop and livestock production and in food and beverage processing. While farmers innovate on their farms, experimenting with practices that can boost their productivity, individually they do not have the capacity to conduct longer-term research and development. Maintaining high productivity growth requires robust investment in agricultural R&D from both the public and the private sectors.

But are we keeping up with these needed investments?

A report published by my organization, "The 2015 Global Agricultural Productivity Report" ("GAP Report"), notes the declining trajectory of investment in this critical research area. According to data provided by the USDA, public funds for agricultural R&D grew from 1948 through the early 1980s, but the rate of investment has begun to decline and is not keeping up with the rate of research inflation. In fact, investment in public agricultural R&D has declined 6 percent since 2000, impacting productivity and sustainability in agriculture five to 10 years from now, just as global demand begins to skyrocket. 

Research and development investments have a long gestation period and require sufficient and steady investment to be translated into the hands of farmers and producers where they will bear fruit. As an example, the USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is the largest federal research program, providing competitive grants to researchers to solve our 21st-century food and agriculture challenges. Congress provided AFRI with $262 million in funding for 2010, and annual funding has grown steadily to $316 million in 2014. The 2008 and 20014 farm bills authorized up to $700 million per year for AFRI through 2018, but Congress has not provided the fully authorized annual levels. The good news is that this year, the Obama administration has requested the fully authorized amount of $700 million in its 2017 budget request, and Congress has taken the first steps to consider this request this week.

While the agriculture research capacity of the United States is the envy of many countries across the world, much more needs to be done to ensure that it can solve the 21st-century challenges facing our nation and the planet. Ensuring that the USDA has the resources it needs to maintain our nation's agricultural productivity and sustainability is an important first step.

This piece was corrected on March 21, 2016 at 1:35 p.m.

Zeigler is executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative.