NSAC's Blog

2018 Farm Bill Drilldown: Research and Plant Breeding

December 14, 2018

Rogers Farm Forage and Crop Research Facility, Maine. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.
Rogers Farm Forage and Crop Research Facility, Maine. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the final negotiated 2018 Farm Bill, which was released on December 11, 2018 by the leaders of the Farm Bill Conference Committee. Subsequent posts focus on crop insurance and commodity subsidies; previous posts focused on local and regional food and beginning/socially disadvantaged farmers, organic agriculture, and conservation. The bill was passed by the House and Senate this week and sent to the President for his signature.

Investment in public agricultural research leads to the advancement of new farming techniques and practices that can help farmers increase their profitability and sustainability. A strong investment in research underpins growth in any sector, as all farmers – sustainable, organic, conventional, or otherwise – need cutting-edge research that is easily accessible and relevant to their farming systems.  

Several research and extension programs rely on the farm bill for their funding or authorization, including the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI),  and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) was pleased that each of these important programs was reauthorized in the recently finalized 2018 Farm Bill. We are also encouraged to see the inclusion of public plant breeding provisions that will increase farmers’ access to the most productive and well-adapted seeds for their operations, geographies, and climates.

Generally, the compromise farm bill followed the Senate-passed bill’s language on the research title, which in turn mirrored many of NSAC’s farm bill proposals. About $630 million in new funding was allocated to agriculture research in the final bill: the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) received $395 million (bringing the program to permanent, baseline funding), urban agriculture $10 million, and $40 million was allotted for 1890 land-grant scholarships.

The achievement of permanent funding for OREI is a huge win for organic farmers and the organic industry writ large. NSAC applauds Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) for recognizing the importance of organic research and for pushing this funding increase forward in the final bill, along with the legislative champions who fought hard for this win, including Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) – lead sponsors of the Organic Agriculture Research Act.

Though the Research Title did well overall, we were disappointed that dedicated funding for plant breeding research was not included. However, the reauthorization of the National Genetics Resources Program and improvements to the National Genetics Resources Advisory Council should allow stakeholders (including farmers and breeders) to continue providing valuable input on ways federal programs can help to address future seed needs. These provisions were included in the Seeds For the Future Act, which NSAC championed, and we thank Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Darren Soto (D-FL) and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) for their leadership on these issues in the farm bill. 

Below, we include a summary of the key takeaways on how the final conferenced farm bill approaches programs and policies that support research and plant breeding programs:


  • Establishes permanent, mandatory funding for OREI, which is in line with NSAC’s farm bill proposals. The 2018 Farm Bill will more than double OREI funding, increasing it from $20 million to $50 million per year over the next five years. The program will receive $20 million in grant funding for FY 2019 and FY 2020, $25 million in FY 2021, $30 million in FY 2022, and $50 million in FY 2023 and each year thereafter. The establishment of permanent baseline funding means that OREI will receive at least this level of funding in perpetuity, rather than having to negotiate funding from scratch every five years when the farm bill is revisited again in 2023.
  • Establishes new reporting requirements on public plant breeding  through the National Genetics Resources Program, and through this, the National Genetics Resources Advisory Council (NGRAC). The bill mandates NGRAC to conduct a National Strategic Germplasm and Cultivar Collection Assessment and Utilization Plan, which “takes into consideration the resources and research necessary to address the significant backlog of characterization and maintenance of existing accessions considered to be critical to preserve the viability of, and public access to, germplasm and cultivars.” As part of this analysis, stakeholder input, data reporting, and metrics must also be included to assess existing cultivar research, research gaps, and any advancements needed to further public plant breeding research.
  • Reauthorizes the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program for the first time since the program’s creation over 30 years ago. To this day, SARE remains the only farmer driven federal research program, and has helped launch advances in sustainable agriculture like cover crops, management intensive grazing, dryland farming and conservation tillage. 
  • Authorizes funding for a new urban agriculture research initiative. The new Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education, and Extension Initiative received $10 million for competitive and extension grants over the next five years. This program will support research that contributes to: successful urban, indoor, and other emerging agriculture production; soil quality; local community needs; as well as explore technologies that minimize energy, lighting systems, water, and other food production inputs. There is also a data collection provision to gather information about community, rooftop and indoor gardens, urban farms, and hydroponic facilities.
  • Awards 1890 land-grant institutions $40 million in funding for scholarships for students pursuing agribusiness, energy and renewable fuels, or financial management. 1890 land-grant institutions are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that are authorized as land-grant universities under the Second Morrill Act of 1890, making them eligible for USDA capacity funding. Additionally, the bill makes important policy changes to ensure greater equity in extension funding for 1890s.
  • Adds new soil health priorities to both the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and OREI. The bill also adds new beginning farmer and rancher research priorities, including increasing viability of young, beginning, socially disadvantaged, veteran, and immigrant farmers and ranchers and farm succession and transition. The bill increases AFRI’s administrative expenses from 4 to 5 percent, meaning slightly less will be available in annual grant funding.

Mixed Bag

  • Reverses the matching grants requirement implemented in the 2014 Farm Bill for National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) competitive grant programs. While the farm bill doesn’t eliminate matching grant requirements entirely, as NSAC and others within the research community proposed, this provision does at least reinstate waivers for some programs (including OREI) to better allow institutions and non-profit organizations who are unable to meet the matching requirement to apply for grant funding.
  • Includes NSAC’s farm bill proposals for the Office of the Chief Scientist, including making improvements in personnel to assist the Chief Scientist’s leadership duties. The Chief Scientist will select staff to oversee implementation, training, compliance and reporting with the scientific integrity policy of the Department. The Chief Scientist will also appoint a Honeybee and Pollinator Research Coordinator to implement and coordinate pollinator research efforts. However, the final bill fails to include a new Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) within the Office of the Chief Scientist (as recommended to congressional leadership by a group of over 70 agriculture research stakeholders in October 2017). If included, SIF would have worked to improve collaboration in addressing emerging opportunities with respect to pressing societal challenges, especially those requiring urgent emergency responses or those that require more than one agency.


  • Fails to expand AFRI to explicitly address important research priorities like climate change mitigation and adaptation, and also fails to clarify the definition of  conventional breeding to prohibit transgenic methods (i.e. biotechnology). 

  • Does not establish dedicated funding for plant breeding research, leaving this important research area woefully underfunded to meet current and future needs. Hopefully, the funding increase provided to OREI will result in more funding for organic plant breeding projects, so that farmers are able to better access regionally adapted seeds.

  • Fails to expand and make fully competitive integrated projects within AFRI.  Under current law, funding for AFRI integrated projects – which focus on research, education, and extension activities – are restricted to colleges and universities, 1994 Land-Grant Institutions, and Hispanic-serving agricultural colleges and universities. NGOs and other community research organizations will continue to be ineligible to apply for funding, unless they partner with an eligible institution.

Categories: Farm Bill, Research, Education & Extension

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