Slashing food research funding is a mistake

Slashing food research funding is a mistake
© Getty Images

Most people give little thought to the science that’s behind the food we eat and the farming systems that produce it. But, there’s a lot of science behind each mouthful. And behind the science is publicly funded research that’s sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

We as a people have grown complacent about having access to enough, safe and affordable food and don’t pay much attention to the farm bill, appropriations or the work of USDA’s research agencies. Yet, food and agriculture and related industries contribute about $1 trillion dollars to the U.S. GDP annually and account for about 11 percent of U.S. employment. Even more than the economic contributions, our lives are touched daily by USDA research in many ways from improved food safety to new varieties of fruit and vegetables in the grocery store to wrinkle-resistant cotton in the closet and cross-laminated timber in new skyscrapers.

ADVERTISEMENT

We led the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agencies in Democratic and Republican administrations and came to understand how the science that USDA supports is fundamental to good policy decisions that affect America’s future security and prosperity. Safe, health-promoting food, clean air and water, and shelter are the essentials for human life, and the research that USDA conducts and supports focuses on questions of how to provide those services from working lands — farm lands, range lands and forests — in ways that are sustainable into future generations.

The USDA research budget is roughly $2 billion annually and is administered by several agencies — the National Institute of Food and Agriculture that makes grants to university-based scientists, the Agricultural Research Service that manages a system of 90 national laboratories, the Forest Service, and the Economic Research Service. USDA research dollars go to support students and faculty at universities as well as researchers in national labs to support fundamental research and to provide data that informs decisions made by the Food and Drug Administration, the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Environmental Protection Agency with implications for every consumer.

One of our concerns is that the money Congress appropriates for USDA’s research agencies is now lower than in 2010 in inflation-adjusted dollars — largely the result of substantial budget cuts that Congress made in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

USDA’s research buying power is already severely eroded, laboratories have been closed, programs terminated. What does that mean for health, security and our future economy? Over the short term, the proposed budget cuts mean we will be producing fewer agricultural and natural resource scientists at a time when more than 20,000 jobs each year are going unfilled because of the lack of new graduates in the food and agricultural sciences.

Over the longer term, we will lose the insights that research provides that could prevent the next epidemic of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza that decimated poultry flocks from 2014 to 2015, help fire fighters understand and predict the course of wildfires, new techniques to assure the safety of food, or provide farmers with drought tolerant new crop varieties. 

As former leaders at USDA, we are worried that a new proposal by the Secretary of Agriculture to move two of the research agencies — ERS and NIFA — will adversely affect their ability to conduct their work and could potentially politicize economic research. The proposed re-location of the two agencies to yet undecided sites outside the National Capital Region will cause disruptions to ongoing work, loss of talented researchers, and government funds will be expended to no purpose. ERS is designated as a “principal statistical agency” and the data and analysis it performs inform many USDA agencies’ decisions. Moving ERS to report to the Office of the Secretary, another aspect of the administration’s proposal, will open it to real or perceived political interference and erode its credibility.

Over the next few weeks, Congress has three important decisions to make that will have long-term consequences for food and agriculture research.

First is the Farm Bill, the law that comes up for renewal every 5 years and is now being debated in a conference committee of Senate and House members. Congress has the opportunity to re-authorize funding for important research and education programs like the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, Organic Agriculture Research and Extension, and Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development, programs that competitively fund innovative research through public-private partnerships. 

Congress is also poised to pass an agriculture appropriations bill this month and should be urged to favor higher levels of funding for USDA’s research agencies. 

Finally, Congress has the opportunity to reject the administration’s ill-conceived, hastily offered proposal to reorganize and relocate two research agencies. At the very least, it should require that USDA provide an independent and thorough study of the costs and benefits of its proposal and at best it should consider quashing it completely.

Decisions like the ones facing this Congress may go unremarked on and unnoticed by most of Americans, but they will have far-reaching effects on all of us. Congress must take our food system and the science that informs it with the seriousness it deserves.

Catherine E. Woteki, Ph.D., served as USDA’s chief scientist and under secretary for Research, Education and Economics in the Obama administration.  

Gale A. Buchanan, Ph.D., served as USDA’s chief scientist and under secretary for Research, Education and Economics in the George W. Bush administration.