Public-private investment for agriculture research is a winning approach

Public-private investment for agriculture research is a winning approach
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Now that both the U.S. House and Senate have passed their respective versions of the so-called "farm bill," it appears likely that President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE will be able to sign the legislation before the U.S. Department of Agriculture's current authorization expires in September. Reauthorized every five years, the farm bill is a massive piece of legislation that authorizes funding for all federal food and farm-support programs.

However, the 2018 bill’s path is still far from certain. There are dramatic differences between the House and Senate versions, making it hard to predict what the final product will look like after it makes its way through conference committee. In this environment, crucial investment in agricultural research and development hangs in flux.

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Smarter investment is needed to fuel innovation in the agriculture economy, ensure American farmers remain on the cutting edge of technology and that they remain competitive in the global economy. Here, the farm bill has a role to play. As the bill continues to make its way through Congress, lawmakers should prioritize funding for research and development programs and private-public partnerships, rather than double down on our broken farm-subsidy system.

 

A shining example of smart investment in agricultural research and development can be seen in the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR). Authorized by Congress as a part of the last farm bill, FFAR is an independent, nonprofit foundation that leverages both public and private resources for crucial agricultural science and research projects. 

FFAR operates by creating partnerships with private entities and universities for research projects on important issues that range from food safety to renewable energy to agriculture systems and technology. By law, FFAR is required to match every dollar it receives in public funds with private investment. This means better returns for taxpayers, whose initial $200 million investment in FFAR has delivered more than $400 million in programming.

The public-private model also helps to bring millions of dollars of untapped private capital off the sidelines and into important projects that benefit not only farmers, but consumers and the economy as a whole. Studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research generates more than $10 in economic returns. There is huge potential for private investment in agricultural research, but smart policy and strategic investment are needed to unleash it. The farm bill can provide the investment needed to get these nascent projects off the ground.

Farm bills are notorious for being bloated and wasteful, and this year’s iterations are no exception. The House bill, for example, includes subsidies for sheep farmers, a checkoff program for rocks and new loopholes that allow distant family members who don’t even live or work on a farm to collect up to $125,000 each in commodity subsidies. By contrast, investment in research and development programs like FFAR have proven to be a good return on investment for taxpayers and help make American farms more efficient, productive and sustainable. Unfortunately, while the Senate version of the bill reauthorizes FFAR, the House bill discontinues its funding.

The United States should be the leader in agricultural technology, but China now surpasses us in investment by more than twofold. Our farmers are plagued by a badly outdated subsidy system that distorts markets, as well as chronic underinvestment in agricultural research and development. The time has come to modernize our farm programs and enhance investment in the types of research that will make our farm economy the most competitive and innovative in the world. Reauthorizing FFAR is an important first step.

Caroline Kitchens is federal affairs manager for the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group focused on promoting limited government.