A sad day for agriculture: Unnecessarily moving USDA research arm

A sad day for agriculture: Unnecessarily moving USDA research arm
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It’s now official — the Kansas City area has been selected for the new home of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS). Many of us in the agricultural research community are still in a state of shock. Soon after the announcement, we saw the secretary meeting with affected personnel who turned their backs on him.

These developments are jolting. 

ERS and NIFA were created with much debate and careful, respectful deliberation by all parties who had a stake in them. It is perplexing how such fundamental changes can be proposed intelligently by USDA with little or no input by any party in a very “hurry up” time frame.

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Having studied the history of how the USDA, the Land-grant university system, and our agricultural research, education and extension system came to be, USDA’s actions are truly unprecedented. Even though the legislation that created the Land-grant university system was passed during the heat of the U.S. Civil War, there were many, many debates and discussions about the legislation. The agricultural research system was formalized in 1887 following over 16 years of debate, discussion, and after some 14 states had initiated some form of agricultural research effort.

If allowed this move would be detrimental to our agricultural research effort in the long run, but more concerning is the lack of recognition, appreciation, and respect by the secretary for agricultural research and the agricultural research community. 

Regardless of how we have arrived at this situation — and where it ends up — we must find a way out that re-engages all parties such that they can work collegiately in support of American agriculture. With Secretary Perdue not listening to agricultural research experts or USDA employees, we need the leadership of Congress. The House appropriations committee — through the leadership of Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) — has moved forcefully to block the relocation in a fiscal 2020 bill.

The U.S. Senate does not yet have a fiscal 2020 bill for USDA. So far, however, the Senate majority has shown little appetite to stand up to the secretary and advocate for the agencies or the integrity of USDA science. Even if the Senate does match or agree to the House language blocking the moves, the fiscal 2020 appropriations bill for USDA is months from being finalized and Perdue is working to use non-federal funds — effectively skirting congressional input — to complete the moves this fiscal year.

I simply refuse to believe we are unable to find a workable solution that will enable all parties to work collegiately for American agriculture.

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Recently, I proposed that Perdue and the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) co-chair a joint commission that would consider and address all aspects of the agricultural research effort including the secretary’s relocation of NIFA and ERS. Perdue and APLU should engage the National Academy of Sciences to convene a panel that includes agricultural research leaders to conduct an in-depth review and study to chart a course for agricultural research in the future. It should be developed with ample opportunity for input by all parties who have a stake in agriculture. Such studies have been effective, indeed transformative, on a variety of topics, including agriculture. 

Congress should mandate USDA to fund such a study and delay any relocation until it is completed. If Perdue succeeds however in sidestepping Congress to achieve the moves — or if the Senate allows Perdue’s upheaval of the USDA research arm — Congress should still mandate the USDA-funded study to get American agricultural research back up on its feet. 

Gale Buchanan was USDA chief scientist and undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics under President George W. Bush and dean of agriculture at the University of Georgia. He is the author of “Feeding the World: Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century” (2018) and “Branch Research Stations in Agriculture: History, Development, Operation, and Future” (2019).