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Path to the 2018 Farm Bill: Sustainable Agriculture Research

November 29, 2017


Cover crop trials at the Rogers Farm Forage and Crop Research Facility in Stillwater, ME. Photo credit: NSAC.

Editor’s Note: On October 24, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) released its 2018 Farm Bill policy platform, An Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill, which provides a comprehensive vision for a more sustainable farm and food system based on the recommendations and experience of American family farmers and the organizations that represent them. This is the fifth post in a multipart series that breaks down NSAC’s policy platform for the 2018 Farm Bill.

What do a fifth generation commodity producer who wants to diversify their crop rotation and a rural community looking to combat the effects of climate change have in common? They both rely on public research and agricultural science to help them find real, lasting solutions to the challenges they face. Publicly funded research helps farmers and food producing communities to mitigate every day challenges, as well as to bounce back from disasters or unexpected events. Agricultural research also informs food system issues related to nutrition, food safety, climate variability, and public health.

Thanks to support from publicly funded research programs, farmers and food producing communities across the country have been able to better manage their risk by diversifying their crops, increasing the resilience of their soils, and reducing the need for chemical inputs. Despite the immense benefits conferred by publicly funded research, the federal programs that provide most of these services have been woefully underfunded for years. With the dwindling of support for these programs, we have also steadily lost diversity in our seed stocks and reduced options and resources for farmers who do not want to or cannot afford to work with a private corporation.

The 2018 Farm Bill is an opportunity to reverse the trend toward privatization and lost diversity. By reinvesting in public research, we are simultaneously investing in the resiliency of our food system, expanding opportunities for innovation and new markets, and bringing choice and diversity back to American producers.

NSAC’s Farm Bill Platform lays out an ambitious research agenda for how the next farm bill can keep American agriculture competitive and resilient by:

  • Expanding seed options to give farmers the freedom to choose what and how to grow.
  • Boosting investments in research to advance crop diversity and enhance food security.
  • Improving coordination and transparency to ensure strategic public and private research investments in seed breeding.
  • Advancing organic and sustainable agriculture research by increasing funding for programs that help farmers  meet market demand and overcome production challenges.

Expanding Seed Options for Farmers

Farmers are natural innovators and know best what kind of performance and traits they need from their seeds and crops. By supporting farmer-driven plant breeding research, we can better ensure that all farmers have access to high performing, locally adapted seeds – no matter where they farm or what they grow. Expanding publicly supported plant breeding research will also give farmers more choice and control, allowing producers viable alternatives to privately-owned and international seed corporations. While privately funded research works for some crops and some producers, many farmers rely upon the public research developed within our nation’s land grant universities, which can be accessed freely and without charge. Plant breeding programs housed within our nation’s land grant universities are currently struggling, not just from a lack of federal funding, but also from barriers to accessing germplasm that is protected with overly restrictive property protections.

In order to best support research innovation in the public sector, Congress must remove overly restrictive legal protections, such as utility patents which rather than promote actually stifle continued innovation, that are placed on intellectual property (i.e., innovative seed varieties) developed in part or in whole with public funding. They should also not restrict the further use or improvement of germplasm developed with said funding.

With America’s seed markets increasingly consolidating, our nation is at risk of handing over a key public resource – our nation’s entire agricultural genetic diversity (in the form of patented germplasm) – to private interests. In order to further expand seed options for farmers, the 2018 Farm Bill must:

  • Ensure that Plant Variety Protections (PVP) or Plant Patents serve as the only authorized forms of statutory plant varietal protection on varieties developed with public funding.
  • Protect farmers’ rights to save and use (and breeders’ rights to share and improve) seed that is bred with public funds, but licensed by a private seed company.

Boosting Investments to Advance Diversity

For years our investment in federally supported agricultural research has been stagnant, leaving many programs with insufficient funding to keep up with the challenges facing our nation’s farmers. Over the past 20 years alone, we have lost over a third of our country’s public plant breeding programs. This slow atrophy of public funding has had a negative impact on farmers, and – among other effects – has left American producers with fewer and fewer seed choices, leaving them ill-prepared to meet 21st century needs and challenges.

The pool of available germplasm is narrowing and publicly developed seed varieties are rapidly disappearing. In fact, the problem has become so bad that entire regions of the country lack access to seed varieties that are adapted to their changing geographic and climatic needs, including the ability to resist or combat newly emerging pest and disease challenges. Without renewed funding for the development of publicly available plant varieties, American farmers will be put at a competitive disadvantage. For example, farmers will be less able to take advantage of the growing economic opportunities within the value-added, artisanal, organic, and local and regional food markets.

As the number of publicly funded plant breeders continues to decline, it becomes increasingly urgent for Congress to support the next generation of public plant and animal breeders. NSAC’s farm bill platform urges Congress to provide at least $50 million in annual USDA extramural, competitive grant research funding supports public cultivar and breed development in the 2018 Farm Bill. This investment will ensure a viable “pipeline” to bring forward the next generation of plant and animal breeders.

Improving Coordination and Transparency  

There are many research programs operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provide support for public plant and animal breeding research, including: the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI); the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI); land-grant university formula (or capacity) funds; and longer-term research trials conducted by the Agriculture Research Service. Because there is no single USDA research program dedicated to public cultivar development, however, it is very difficult to assess total federal investments in public breeding research. The diffuse and often patchwork funding structure that supports most long-term breeding research makes it difficult to fully understand the public’s return on investments, which makes program evaluation and improvement a struggle. Unfortunately, this problem is pandemic, affecting multiple programs and agencies, and often delaying research results (i.e., new varieties developed and adapted by farmers) for years at a time.

Increased accountability and transparency is needed to ensure that the private and public sector can properly evaluate public investments in breeding research. Additionally, USDA must establish a baseline of competitive breeding research and help to ensure coordination across agencies as well as the private sector – this information gathering and coordination helps to reduce duplication and target resources.

The next farm bill must work to address the current lack of data, accountability and coordination by:

  • Establishing a Seeds and Breeds Coordinator to develop a baseline of federal breeding research, ensure coordination across agencies as well as the private sector, and identify gaps in breeding research.
  • Requiring that USDA monitor, track, evaluate, and ultimately report on the scope and depth of plant breeding investments in order to ensure that federal funding for public cultivar development research is both strategic and adequate.

Advancing Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Research

The demand for organic and sustainably produced foods is on the rise globally. In the United States, however, many farmers struggle to access and/or thrive in this growing marketplace due to a lack of relevant research and education programs.

One farm bill program of particular importance is the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which helps fill the void of knowledge by supporting research projects that specifically address the most critical challenges faced by organic farmers. The 2018 Farm Bill provides Congress with an opportunity to continue and strengthen support for organic farmers, helping them to capitalize on new and improved economic opportunities. Specifically, NSAC recommends that Congress reauthorize OREI at no less than $50 million per year in order to establish permanent research funding and to ensure the continued growth, competitiveness and long-term success of the organic industry in the United States.

Another key research program, one that has been at the forefront of the sustainable agriculture movement for nearly 30 years, is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Nearly three decade after program was created by the 1990 Farm Bill, SARE remains the only USDA competitive grants research program with a clear and consistent focus on farmer-driven research. The 2018 Farm Bill will be the first time the program has required congressional reauthorization.

NSAC’s farm bill platform includes several policy proposals aimed at improving the administration of SARE to ensure that it is in the best position to support and disseminate sustainable agriculture research to farmers. Specifically, the 2018 Farm Bill should:

  • Reauthorize SARE at its current authorization of $60 million per year, and work towards establishing mandatory funding for the program.
  • Increase the representation of non-profit organizations on SARE’s Administrative Councils.
  • Ensure that NGOs can successfully compete for SARE funding through education-only projects that seek to train farmers on sustainable production practices.
  • Increase outreach in each SARE region to serve socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and researchers.

What’s Next for Research and the Farm Bill?

Research is one of NSAC’s top policy priorities as we head into the 2018 Farm Bill, and also for many other food and agriculture groups, as well as for legislators. Last month, a diverse group of over 60 organizations urged legislators to dramatically increase funding for USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) research programs including: AFRI, OREI, SCRI, and Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).

NSAC continues to work with our member groups and allies in the research community to ensure that the farm bill’s research title adequately represents the needs of stakeholders across the sustainable agriculture spectrum. As Congress starts to write the 2018 Farm Bill, we are working to introduce marker bills that embody the practical solutions outlined in our farm bill platform.

For example, in May 2017, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) introduced the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017 (H.R.2436). If incorporated into the farm bill, this bill will spur innovative research and extension programs by securing permanent funding for organic research through OREI competitive grants. Dozens of Members of Congress from across the country (and across the aisle) have expressed support for this bill, and we hope to see the same level of interest and support for future marker bills that support and advance public research.

For ongoing updates on NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill sustainable ag research efforts, stay tuned to our research campaign page and our blog.


Categories: Farm Bill, Research, Education & Extension


2 responses to “Path to the 2018 Farm Bill: Sustainable Agriculture Research”

  1. The Farm Bill provides us with a tremendous opportunity to enact smart, science-based policies that support farmers/ranchers. These policies, if properly enacted, will expand access to nutritious and affordable food. That kind of access is exactly what we need to build and develop a healthy & resilient American population. Doing so will reduce our health care expenses many times over.
    What are we waiting for?

  2. Judy Krach says:

    We need more organic foods that are less expensive. And we don’t need one company that is the only one providing seeds to the farmers.
    Also get rid of Roundup and other things that are harmful to our health.
    The USDA isn’t protecting us.

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