With the possibility of new trade tariffs striking a sensitive chord in rural America, farmers are increasingly concerned about global competitiveness and the threat of a possible trade war affecting their bottom line. Hopefully, Congress will be able to pass a farm bill this year that can offer innovative research programs to help our farmers, lessen government dependence and tackle coming environmental challenges to maintain a competitive advantage in a global market.
The impressive gains that positioned the U.S. as a global leader in agricultural production and trade have begun to slow and global competition is on the rise. While the latest statistics paint a rosy picture of America’s economy, U.S. farmers and agribusiness are in danger of being outperformed at a time when farm income is down significantly — more than 50 percent over the last five years.
According to an analysis commissioned by the Farm Journal Foundation, since 2000, American public investment in agricultural research and development has flat-lined. Today, America’s share of global public R&D in agriculture is about half of what it was in the 1960s. Countries like China, Brazil and India now spend $2.33 on agricultural research for every dollar the U.S. spends. And the European Union just announced it will nearly triple their budget for agricultural research to help their farmers better compete in global markets.
The United States cannot afford to continue to fall behind. Rather it should be leading the charge to develop new markets to bolster farm income and feed a growing population. U.S. leadership is especially needed now when pests and disease are spreading as quickly as ever, threatening our farmers livelihoods.
Luckily, new actors and pathways are emerging. Traditional businesses are stepping up to support R&D that builds on the publicly funded research that produced much of the technology and products that historically gave U.S. farmers an edge. While increases in private investment bode well for U.S. agriculture, the private sector cannot and should not meet the innovation challenge alone.
Congress, recognizing the funding and innovation our private sector can bring to agriculture, is supporting a collaborative model to catalyze all relevant players to meet the challenge. In 2014, the bipartisan farm bill that created my organization, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR). This new model funds innovation in agriculture by using limited tax dollars to generate new sources of private capital for public agricultural research to benefit U.S. farmers and our economy.
Modeled after successful public-private partnership institutions, FFAR uses a dollar-for-dollar matching model to help tackle some of the most urgent challenges in U.S. agriculture, bridging the gap between diverse partners to fund bold innovation. FFAR also has the flexibility to collaborate with international partners to facilitate research that benefits both U.S. and foreign producers, such as to address plant and animal diseases before they enter the country.
The largest FFAR grant to date supports research to increase crop yields by engineering plants to photosynthesize more efficiently. Computer models identified many opportunities for improvement, already resulting in productivity increases of up to 40 percent in model crops. When applied to commodity crops, these technologies will be transformational for farmers to maximize production without the need for additional inputs.
The farm bill presents a key opportunity for Congress to support the resources and innovation needed to meet the challenges ahead and further support the tremendous contribution American farmers make to our economy, our national security and our global competitiveness.
The kind of bipartisan, innovative thinking Congress showed when it created FFAR is vital for sustaining and building on 150 years of unparalleled productivity. Our economy needs it. Our farmers deserve it. And our future agricultural leadership depends on it.
Mark E. Keenum, Ph.D., is chairman of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research board of directors. Keenum is also the president of Mississippi State University. He previously served as chief of staff to Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE (R-Miss.) and was under secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.