June 16, 2017
As discussions around the 2018 Farm Bill continue, policymakers on both sides of the aisle, in both chambers of Congress, have spoken about the need for increased public funding for agricultural research. For example, members of the House recently announced the bi-partisan Congressional Agriculture Research Caucus to highlight the need for additional focus on innovative research and extension programs.
Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on agricultural research, focusing on both past successes and future research needs. There were two panels of witnesses, the first panel included representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, while the second panel included researchers and those benefiting from publicly funded research.
Members of Panel 1:
Members of Panel 2:
Falling Behind on an International Scale
A recurring theme of the hearing was the fact that the United States is falling behind other countries in terms of research capacity. Members of both panels discussed the international importance of agricultural research funding. Dr. Floros, for example, explained that physical infrastructure in many land grant universities, including his home facility, is in dire need of revamping. He expressed concerns over the ability of researchers to address the needs of farmers without an increased investment in public research facilities. Senators from both the Majority and Minority agreed that the US needs to increase its emphasis on public research in order to stay internationally competitive.
Diversification of Knowledge Sources
Another major emphasis of the hearing was the need for a diversification of knowledge sources. For example, both Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) discussed the importance of empowering diverse constituencies, such as Native communities. Dr. Hartman, from Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, complemented this sentiment using the example of berry breeding at his home institution, which has brought important genetic information about traditional crops thought to be obsolete into the research spotlight.
Specific Research Needs
Several Committee members and witnesses highlighted the need for research to support climate-related difficulties on farms in various regions of the country. Dr. Ramaswamy highlighted how seed breeding is a viable solution in response to a question from Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) on how research can help create varieties of wheat that are resilient to unpredictable weather patterns.
Members of the Committee were also interested in understanding how USDA research programs help farmers improve agricultural conservation practices. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) asked the first panel of witnesses how programs can address major issues relating to soil health in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Programs like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program were discussed as ways to help farmers and researchers address these challenges across the country.
Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) asked the witnesses about the importance of the organic sector and how USDA research programs can help it develop. Dr. Ramaswamy took the lead in highlighting the economic importance of programs like the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and how this program, along with various other competitive grant programs, works to address challenges that limit the sector’s growth. While demand for organic products has expanded rapidly, growth in organic production has been held back due to a lack of investment in research, education programs, and extension resources. An increased investment in organic research in the next farm bill would ensure that farmers have access to the latest techniques, systems, and information, tailored to their specific growing needs and regions.
The Future of Agricultural Research
Perhaps the strongest statement of the hearing came from Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), who expressed his discontent with the cuts to research programs included in the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request. Senator Bennett called the proposed cuts “an insult to rural America.” His sentiments were shared broadly across Committee membership. The FY 2018 budget request includes a 30 percent cut to SARE, a 7 percent cut to the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, and the elimination of the Organic Transitions research program.
The primary takeaway from yesterday’s hearing was that increased federal investment is needed to address current and future agricultural challenges. A common thread throughout the hearing was the need to prioritize and address regionally specific challenges. Producing new seed varieties through classical breeding research will play a pivotal role in addressing these difficulties and providing our farmers with the best tools possible going forward.