Want more affordable and sustainable food? Invest in R&D.
© U.S. Department of Agriculture

Today in Washington, policymakers have received the Trump administration's federal budget. The proposed budget dramatically cuts most discretionary spending and federal agency accounts, save for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, which are expected to see increases.

While members of Congress will weigh in with their views on the structure and amount of federal spending, the agriculture sector must consider how to most effectively mobilize and target both public and private investments to benefit farmers, consumers and the environment in light of this budgetary pressure.

The agriculture budget contains vital programs and resources that help farmers and ranchers, conserve natural resources, and provide invaluable nutrition for millions of Americans.

The agriculture and food system of the United States is the most abundant, varied and productive in world history. Using diverse methods, including conventional and organic production technologies, U.S. farmers and ranchers produce crops and livestock in many different terrains and climates while providing for a wide array of consumer preferences.

This system delivers safe, affordable and nutritious food for over 321 million Americans, along with fiber, biofuels and forestry products for homes and industry.

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Agriculture today is the result of a productivity revolution: Over the past century, U.S. agricultural productivity (total farm output compared with total farm input) has increased, while the number of farms decreased and the number of acres under production has remained stable. Prices of food paid for by consumers have also declined, from 22 percent of disposable income in the 1920s to just 6 percent of disposable income in 2013.

 

A primary stimulus for this productivity revolution has been the collaborative system of public and private agricultural research and development (R&D) that has boosted innovation in crop and livestock production and in food and beverage processing.

Maintaining high productivity growth requires robust investment in agricultural R&D from both the public and private sectors.

Every public dollar invested in agricultural research in the U.S. provides at least $10 and up to $20 in economic benefits to society, a powerful return on investment that provides strong bang for the public agricultural research buck.

Yet U.S. public agriculture R&D investment has been flat since the 1980s and has declined 6 percent since 2000.

A recent report published by the SoAR Foundation, "Retaking the Field" provides a call to action to reverse a significant decline in research investment and discusses how public research is making a difference for farmers, consumers and the environment.

The report contains success stories from 11 universities showing how scientists are reducing allergens in peanuts, improving cage-free egg production, reducing poultry diseases, developing fungi-resistant wheat and rice, and other breakthroughs in science.

Solutions lie in ensuring that funding for a wide range of U.S. agriculture research programs remains robust, as well as in improving the structure and collaboration of agriculture research.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is the premier competitive federal agriculture research program and was authorized in the 2008 farm bill to provide up to $700 million per year in competitive grants. As of fiscal 2016, Congress has appropriated only half of the authorized level and AFRI is able to award grants to only 10 percent of those who apply, leaving hundreds of potentially groundbreaking projects unfunded.

AFRI provides funding for the cases noted in the SoAR Foundation's report and many other collaborative research efforts, such as the National Program for Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle, which aims to reduce the amount of feed required to produce beef, which in turn helps reduce environmental impact and costs for ranchers.

Gradually increasing the investments for AFRI over the next several years could unleash a powerful research pipeline to ensure the U.S. remains competitive with other nations, such as China, that have already boosted their research investments.

Margaret M. Zeigler is executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative, a private-sector voice for productivity growth throughout the agricultural value chain.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.