Remember what laptop you used in 1970? How about your cell phone? How much did you pay each month for Internet access? Exactly. Things have changed a lot since 1970. Not so for public spending on agricultural research.
In 1970, U.S. public funding for ag research was about $3 billion. In 2012, it was only about $4.7 billion in real dollars (deflated by a cost-of-research price index), according to USDA’s Economic Research Service. That extra $1.7 billion is small change in a world where a single piece of sophisticated scientific equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Since the 1970s, “We have been coasting on the consequences from the first Green Revolution,” said Kathryn Boor, dean of the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We are lagging behind in the types of innovation that are necessary to meet challenges that are just ahead of us.”
The challenges Boor mentions include feeding the 9 billion people projected to inhabit the planet by 2050. Boor also cites the challenge of maintaining an American agriculture that will allow farmers to “pay their bills, enjoy their families and be appreciated by the rest of society.”
Lack of money to entice young scientists into basic ag research is another serious challenge. Academics wonder who will be the next generation of professionals to teach research skills to future agronomists, soil scientists and livestock specialists.
Consider: Seven years after it passed the 2008 farm bill, Congress has yet to fully finance a provision of legislation that created the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to support ag research with competitive grants. The bill authorized a $700-million budget for AFRI. To date, the most Congress has been able to muster is half of that total — $350 million. In February, the Obama Administration submitted its Fiscal Year 2017 budget to Congress with the full $700 million for AFRI. Republican leaders declared the budget dead before arrival.
As a result of lower funding for grants, ag researchers in 2014 were all but shut out. They submitted 3,875 grant proposals for AFRI funding, but the agency was able to pay for only about 10% of them. Only a few projects moved forward. The rest were put in storage, and bright scientists were deprived of a chance to work on serious issues.
European Union funding for ag research surpassed U.S. spending in 2007 and, in 2010, was about $5.5 billion. China’s ag research funding surpassed U.S. spending in 2008 and, by 2010, was almost $6 billion.
Some skeptics say the need for public research is overblown, that private companies — seed, chemical and machinery — already provide a large pile of dollars. In fact, they point out, private funds for ag research now are nearly equal to those provided by government.
“That’s fine,” said Steven Rhines, vice president and general counsel of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. “But it [private research] is focused on 5 row crops. What you don’t see is large investments in soil health or non-row cops that feed and clothe much of the world and the U.S.”
Fortunately, say funding supporters, there are signs the case for greater public investment in ag research is gaining strength.
During the last few years, a community of activists — farmers, academics and members of ag foundations — have birthed a movement to increase public ag research funding. Significantly, they also developed new strategies for maximizing existing public funds. The buzzwords in this community include “public/private partnerships,” “agricultural research organizations” and “advocacy.”
Pam Johnson, who farms with husband, Maurice, and their family’s next generation (Ben and Amy, Andy and Abbie), in Floyd, Iowa, is a funding warrior.
In the early 2000s, she became hooked on a National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) project to map the corn genome. She was convinced that knowledge of the genome could help rapidly improve corn hybrids. Problem was NCGA didn’t have enough money to finance the project on its own.
Johnson and others went to work to lobby, cajole and generally wear down politicians. Finally, in 2008, Congress authorized a $108-million grant to three universities for the genome project. As a result of this public/private cooperation, researchers two years later claimed victory.
Fast-forward to 2014. Johnson again had spent more years lobbying, cajoling and wearing down politicians, who authorized $200 million for the newly created Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR). It is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, the goal of which is to use its money to match funds from private entities in ag research projects.
Collaborations between commodity organizations and state and federal agencies already play an important part in ag research funding. FFAR is the latest vehicle for leveraging both public and private funds.
FFAR is seeking its first partners and, this year, hopes to make some major investments in soil health research.
Johnson, who is on the foundation’s board of directors, is enthusiastic: “I think there is nothing more satisfying for a farmer than to see basic research being done publicly and privately, then transferring it and commercializing it so it can be put to work.”
To address the issue of bringing a new generation of scientists into ag research, FFAR this winter introduced the New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award. Graduate and post-doctoral students can apply for multiyear, $100,000 grants to develop projects “to expand the availability of food and facilitate the global practice of sustainable agriculture.” The award program is to run for three years with matching grants from private sources.
In the 1950s, Congress gave 501(c)(3) status to medical research organizations (MROs). The result was a boom in MROs, which became prodigious funding machines. The Paul Allen Institute for Brain Science (named for the cofounder of Microsoft), the Stowers Institute for Medical Research (named after the founder of American Century Investments) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are public charities under IRS rules. They receive millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations and, in turn, give millions annually to medical research institutions. The largest 44 of the more than 200 MROs spend more than $2 billion annually on medical research and employ more than 1,600 people.
Rhines and others have lobbied Congress for years to replicate MROs’ success with something similar to help with ag research funding. They succeeded last winter with the passage of the Charitable Agricultural Research Act (CARA). Now, it is possible to establish agricultural research organizations (AROs) as charitable groups on the same IRS playing field as other charities, such as churches and MROs. The tax implications could encourage philanthropists to create AROs and could also motivate others to contribute.
The Noble Foundation, while not an ARO, is an example of what is possible. Oilman Samuel Lloyd Noble set up his foundation in 1945 to assist Extension and other government agencies in improving agriculture in Oklahoma and Texas. In the 1950s, the foundation gave $11 million in stocks, and that money has grown. The foundation, which spends $50 million per year, has spent $1 billion during the years for the conduct of research and agricultural programs and for other philanthropic giving. It now has a $1-billion endowment for the future.
AROs made possible by CARA could be focused on regions, crops and production problems. They could “unlock potential for private wealth to stream into agriculture to tackle the myriad of problems in front of us,” Rhines said. “If you just had seven organizations near the $50 million the Noble Foundation spends every year, that would nearly double the amount Congress appropriated [for AFRI research] this year. So it doesn’t take 100 organizations to make a significant difference.”
An important characteristic of AROs is that they will work with land-grant universities and non-land-grant colleges of agriculture as vehicles to disseminate ag research. That is good for both ag research and the universities that foster it.
While FFAR and CARA represent a healthy start, Johnson said ag research needs much more attention from the public. “We need to continually remind people how important it is and how great the need is for research. … The NIH [National Institutes of Health] gets $30 billion a year, which is wonderful. But in the grand scheme of things, you have to think that [ag deserves more, too.]”
She paraphrases Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is fond of telling people that the 1% of the population that produces America’s food frees the other 99% to make inroads in other areas.
That’s sometimes a hard argument to sell. The general public and many in Capitol Hill corridors do not understand the role agriculture plays in society. Rhines tells the story of a Congressional aide who asked him, “Do we even really need ag research?”
Lack of awareness and apathy play out when legislators on both state and federal levels plan budgets, Johnson explains. “Research never quite makes it up to the top of the priority list until it’s not there and there is a crisis.”
Evidence of that is the current citrus greening crisis, which is devastating crops in Florida and threatening to spread nationwide. USDA recently allocated $6.7 million in emergency funds to the University of Florida to research the disease and potential cures.
“We don’t want to get to a crisis mode,” Johnson said. “I feel a great responsibility to keep beating that drum.”
EDUCATION AND AWARENESS
On an organizational level, the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research (N-CFAR) hosts “lunch-n-learn” seminars on Capitol Hill. The idea is to give legislators and their aides a quick and meaningful look into ag research needs and results. N-CFAR estimates the program has had more than 7,000 participants in the last 11 years. Few in Congress have science backgrounds, and lunch-n-learn opens their eyes, said Johnson, who was on the N-CFAR board for 10 years.
On an individual level, Johnson said farmers must put themselves in front of legislators and those who influence them. They should do so frequently and with passion. “When advocating,” she said, “you have to have a compelling story.”