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Agriculture Department plans for feeding the nation miss the mark

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The controversial plans of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to move two agency research units out of Washington reminds me of an important lesson from my Army training in marksmanship. Before we ever touched a rifle, we received instruction on topics like rifle mechanisms, cleaning, and safety. Then we learned how to aim, including how to control our breathing and adjust for distance and wind. Once our instruction was mastered, we were cleared for the rifle range. After making the sight adjustments and aiming, then and only then did we fire our rifles.

We all know about “ready, aim, fire” but the moral of my story is also the importance of the initial preparation. The approach Secretary Perdue has taken to ensuring our country is fed and nourished well into the future is to skip the preparation and reverse the order. He “fired” last summer when he made his surprise announcement. His “aim” does not include fixing a problem or making improvements, and the rationale has been vague, unfounded, or disingenuous. The subsequent “ready” phase involved the Agriculture Department scrambling to figure out how to make a site decision, develop site criteria, and consult Congress and stakeholders. The “ready” phase has yet to produce a public cost benefit analysis.

The preparation phase was omitted altogether, unless one counts the Agriculture Department preemptively removing someone standing in the way, who is the only affected official not in an acting capacity. With any new administration, preparation should have included a thorough process to understand the Agriculture Department research arm, its strengths and weaknesses, and its stakeholders, not to mention the major agricultural challenges being addressed. This would have included discussions with current and former leaders, the external agricultural community, and the previous administration, none of which happened. Why should anyone care what the Agriculture Department does with its research units?

For the same reason the federal government has strong research programs in health, defense, and energy, we need strong research programs for our $1 trillion food and agriculture industry. Whether we are talking peaches in Georgia, rice in Louisiana, potatoes in Idaho, wheat in the Dakotas, blueberries in Maine, or swine in the Carolinas, our many commodities are constantly under threat from pests and diseases, highly competitive markets, and extreme weather. It is essential that we maintain the vitality and competitiveness of our commodities, which in turn will keep our farms and rural economies vibrant and flourishing.

Agriculture Department research programs support our health, nutrition, and rural development. They keep us apprised of farming income and estimate commodity projections to inform the long term planning of farmers. They also assess the effectiveness of our nutrition assistance programs, which account for the majority of the agency budget, to help us keep those federal programs running efficiently and effectively.

The research programs inform us about food deserts and new trends in agriculture. These are all initiatives that are much too important to let slip away or become less relevant as they would under current plans by the Agriculture Department. It is true we will still be able to buy groceries at our local stores, however, we need to be concerned about the long term challenges of feeding and nourishing 40 percent to 50 percent more people in the world in the next 30 years on the same amount of land.

Through decades of public service in both government and universities, including as former dean of agriculture at the University of Georgia and former chief scientist and undersecretary of research at the Agriculture Department under President George Bush, I have devoted my career to helping ensure the nation will be fed, nourished, and prosperous. I also worked hard to ensure agricultural research was well administered.

I see little in current plans by the Agriculture Department to help our nation in any of these areas. In fact, I see the opposite. My resistance and that of the rest of the vocal opposition is not fear of change. Change is a given for Agriculture Department research as it adapts to new challenges, modernizes techniques, and makes administrative improvements. Past changes, however, have always been made after careful study and input from a broad sector of voices within the agricultural community.

The backwards “fire, aim, ready” without preparation approach under Secretary Perdue is not good government. To ensure the success of our farmers, our food supply and safety, and rural areas, the Agriculture Department should heed a common sense approach by withdrawing its plans and fully preparing. What do we want? Why? How? At the very least, we should make sure the rifle sights are clean and focused, know what we are aiming for, and know that firing will make the system stronger.

Gale Buchanan is a former dean of agriculture at the University of Georgia and was chief scientist and undersecretary of research at the Agriculture Department under President George Bush. He is author of “Feeding the World: Agricultural Research in the 21st Century” and “Branch Research Stations in Agriculture: History, Development, Operation, and Future.”

Tags Agriculture Congress Government Nutrition Research Science Sonny Perdue

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