April 23, 2012
In sum, the research title of the recently released draft Senate farm bill was not a strong one for sustainable agriculture. NSAC and its member organizations had several proposals for how to strengthen the focus on research that benefits and is relevant for organic and sustainable production systems, contained in our platform, Farming for the Future, and only a handful actual made it into the draft farm bill presented by the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee last week.
The major win in the Research Title was a new initiative aimed at improving the data collection efforts regarding local and regional food systems, and also evaluating programs that seek to benefit local food systems. Unfortunately, the program receives no money, which NSAC will be advocating for into the Senate mark up. For more details about other local food provisions, see our blog post on local food.
The draft bill also provides level funding at $5 million in mandatory funding (and $5 million in appropriated funds) for the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives (ODI), and includes a new reporting requirement for USDA to detail how data collection agencies are coordinating with data user agencies on issues like the development of organic price elections. For more details on the organic provisions in the draft bill, see our organic drilldown blog post.
Another minor win was a new streamlining requirement which requires USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to assess barriers that institutions with limited capacity face in successfully applying and competing for federal research grants. Hopefully, this new requirement will force the agency to streamline its application process and take steps to better serve all eligible research institutions, not just large land-grant colleges and universities with a dedicated grants support staff.
There were several mandatory research programs that were reauthorized and provided manadatory dollars, although at decreased funding levels. They includethe Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which received $16 million per year (down from $20 million currently) and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which received $10 million per year (down from $19 million currently). Both of these receive 5-year as opposed to permanent funding.
The Specialty Crop Research Initiative, on the other hand, does receive permanent funding, starting at a lower annual funding level for a few years but then fully restored to its current level after that phase in period. Although some positive policy improvements were made for OREI, there were no changes made to SCRI to place an additional emphasis on sustainable, ecologically based systems or public breeding research.
Perhaps the most disappointing outcome of the Research Title was the refusal to make any modifications to the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). This program is the largest federal competitive grants program that funds agricultural research, education, and extension projects across the country. There have been some serious challenges during the program’s implementation since it was first authorized in the last farm bill.
Two of the major changes that NSAC has been advocating for since the program’s inception is to increase the amount of research devoted to public plant and animal breeding that leads to the release of public cultivars, and to clarify the program’s eligibility requirement so that all programs within AFRI are open to land-grant colleges and universities, as well as federal agencies, non-profit organizations, private academic institutions, and other eligible applicants that are listed in the statute.
Additionally, the proposal for a new Local and Regional Food Systems Enterprise Facilitation initiative within the Extension service, which was included in the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, was not included in the Research Title provisions contained in the draft farm bill. Public health also took a back seat in this piece of legislative: the research program on antibiotic resistance was allowed to expire, and there was no other provision regarding the impact of federal agricultural policies and programs on the nation’s public health. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in markup of the bill later this week and as the farm bill process moves forward.
Finally, the draft bill does not include mandatory funding for the National Food Safety Training, Education, Extension, Outreach, and Technical Assistance competitive grants program that Sen. Stabenow (D-MI) successfully championed in the Food Safety Modernization Act, but the bill does create a new food safety training program with an authorization for appropriations of $20 million per year. The new program is created for the purposes of “establishing a Comprehensive Food Safety Training Network.” While food safety training goals are critical to improving the safety of our food supply, neither program can really go anywhere in this tight fiscal environment without mandatory funding. It is also unclear why a duplicative program is really needed. We are interested in finding out what the reasoning is for the new proposal.