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House Holds Hearing on USDA Research Programs

July 29, 2011

On Thursday, July 28, the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture held an audit hearing on federal research programs administered by USDA.  This was the ninth hearing on farm bill programs the Committee has held this year.

The Committee heard testimony from top administrators of four agencies that make up USDA’s Research, Education and Economics mission area.  Witnesses included:

  • Edward Knipling, Administrator, Agricultural Research Service
  • Chavonda Jacobs-Young, Acting Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture
  • Cynthia Clark, Administrator, National Agricultural Statistics Service
  • Laurian Unnevehr, Acting Administrator, Economic Research Service

In his opening remarks, Committee Chairman Timothy Johnson (R-IL) emphasized the importance of agricultural research in improving farm productivity in order to address food security and provide for the country’s fuel and fiber needs.  He said the only way to meet the increased demand for food will be through agricultural technology, including biotechnology.  He also stressed the importance of finding more efficient methods of production, and cited Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as one such method.

Ranking Member Jim Costa (D-CA) expressed particular concern that mandatory funding for several important research programs will expire in 2012, including the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which was established in the 2008 farm bill.  Rep. Costa pointed out that even though specialty crop production  represents half of the value of the nation’s entire agriculture industry, they receive no direct commodity subsidies and therefore programs like SCRI are  critically important for supporting this industry.

In addition to SCRI, several other farm bill research title programs have mandatory funding that expires in 2012, including the Organic Agriculture Research and Education Initiative and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is USDA’s intramural research agency, and funds mostly in-house, government scientists in 105 federal laboratories across the country.  ARS Administrator Edward Knipling said that ARS is dedicated to serving both commodity and specialty crop producers and stressed the importance of the foundational research ARS conducts that would otherwise not be conducted by the private sector.

During the follow up Q&A, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) asked the panel about federal research activities that examine the role of agriculture in restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  Knipling highlighted ARS’s pasture and watershed management lab housed at Penn State University, which looks at the impact of forage production on the Susquehannah River.  NASS Administrator Cynthia Clark also mentioned a pilot data collection project they are collaborating on with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to collect agricultural data in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  Rep. Thompson applauded ARS, NASS and NRCS for the work they are doing to reduce sediment and nutrient losses in the Bay resulting from agricultural activities.

There was also some discussion related to advancements in biotechnology, and Rep. Larry Kissel (D-NC) asked why we aren’t able to bring this type of research forward to get viable commercial products.  Knipling mentioned the “significant regulatory burden” as one explanation for the delay in getting GM varieties into the marketplace, but also explained that traditional (classical) breeding with genomics is the wave of the future.

The Role of NIFA in Extramural Research

Chavonda Jacobs-Young, Acting Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), testified on behalf of the agency.  NIFA was established in the 2008 farm bill in order to raise the stature of agricultural research to be on par with the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Jacobs-Young highlighted several important extramural research programs that NIFA administers, which include:

Agriculture and Food Research Initiative: AFRI is NIFA’s “flagship research program” according to Jacobs-Young, created in the 2008 farm bill to fund basic and applied research to support the development of sustainable farming and food systems.  When pressed by Rep. Johnson to defend the scientific integrity of NIFA’s awards and RFA process, Jacobs-Young assured the Congressman that there was no political influence or bias in the agency’s “world renown peer review process” and said “politics are not part of the process.”

Specialty Crop Research Initiative: SCRI was also established in the 2008 farm bill and although it’s still in its initial phase, the results will be significant and promise to deliver benefits to producers and growers, said Jacobs-Young.  Rep. Costa commented that the name “specialty crop” should be changed, because “ ‘specialty’ makes it seem like we’re talking about exotic pears from another country” in contrast to the USDA definition of specialty crops which includes all non-commodity crops, such as fruits and vegetables.  Rep. Costa was particularly concerned with what might happen in 2012 when the mandatory funding for SCRI runs out, as the program provides a separate funding pool dedicated specifically for fruits and vegetables.  Unless the program is reauthorized in the next farm bill, researchers will be forced to compete against commodity researchers in more general programs such as AFRI.

Research on Beginning and Minority Farmers and Ranchers: Jacobs-Young also stated in her testimony that NIFA works hard to serve minorities and beginning farmers.  For example, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which was authorized in the 2008 farm bill, helps to grow the next generation of farmers by funding training, mentorship and land-link programs.  NIFA also has minority serving programs that work with underserved communities, including a priority in BFRDP for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

Other programs that NIFA administers which were not brought up in the hearing include the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, the Organic Transitions Program, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and Extension IPM Program.

NASS Prepares for 2012 Census of Agriculture

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Administrator Cynthia Clark spoke about the importance of federal data collection to inform the decision-making process of producers, public officials, and researchers.  When asked by Rep. Johnson why the government is involved in collecting data, she responded that if the private sector were to be responsible, data would not be complete or made accessible to the public in a timely fashion.  She said that “producers need to be able to make informed decisions based on objective, and timely data that is available to all.”

Clark also discussed NASS’s preparation for the 2012 Census of Agriculture.  Surveys have already been mailed to farmers, and the upcoming census will include new sections on organic agriculture, land use, and on-farm energy production and packaging/processing activities.

ERS Examines Food Security

As Acting Administrator of USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), Laurian Unnevehr provided an overview of the agency’s mission to provide the public and policy makers with statistical indicators that assess the performance of the agriculture sector.  ERS uses NASS and other data in their economic analyses, and Unnevehr highlighted a 2009 report they released on food deserts as an example.  The research was conducted in partnership with the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, and identified new opportunities for retail development and jobs to address domestic food insecurity.

Rep. Costa inquired into the definition of a “food desert” that ERS used in its analysis, and noted that a California county in his district was identified as such even though it is one of the most agricultural counties in the state.  ERS defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

To read witness testimonies and see audio/video of the hearing, visit the Subcommittee’s website.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access, Organic

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