June 6, 2019
On Wednesday, June 5, 2019, Congress hosted its second hearing on the proposed relocation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The issue is raising serous concern among the agriculture and research communities, as well as a growing number of Members of Congress, who have introduced legislation in both chambers that would stop the move.
At this week’s hearing – “Examining the Impacts of Relocating USDA Research Agencies on Agriculture Research” – convened by the Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, Committee Chair, Stacey Plaskett, (D-VI), opened with concerns that the agency’s proposal to relocate ERS and NIFA is being done with no transparency and little to no input from important stakeholders. The move would undermine the work of both agencies and, given the staff losses already being suffered, Rep. Plaskett posited whether the move’s intent was rather to reduce staff and undermine scientific integrity, especially at ERS.
Three witnesses testified at the hearing – all in opposition to the proposed relocation. Invited witnesses included William Tracy, PhD, faculty member in the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Jack Payne, PhD, University of Florida’s (UF) Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and the administrative head of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; and Elizabeth Brownlee, Operator of Nightfall Farm and President of the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition.
All three voiced opposition to the move, with Dr. William Tracy arguing in his testimony that the proposed relocation would diminish our country’s agricultural research capacity at one of the most critical times in U.S. agriculture in recent history. He cited the economic stress facing farming communities across the country and stated concern that the U.S. is falling behind other global research giants, like China who has now overtaken the United States as the top funder of agriculture research. And while other countries are ramping up their research enterprises, Tracy cited concern that the Administration is taking the opposite approach – proposing to reduce current agriculture research spending and throw research agencies into upheaval by relocating and reorganizing them.
“It is entirely unclear how a relocation that will cost both time and money will improve the ERS or NIFA, particularly when resources for both are already stretched so thin. Indeed, the reason I agreed to come here is that I believe, as do many of my colleagues, that moving NIFA and ERS would harm U.S. agricultural research and reduce the vital services that they provide to US farmers and eaters.”
A theme that echoed throughout the brief hearing was that ERS and NIFA work best in the Washington Capital Region where they can readily and seamlessly collaborate with other federal agencies, Congress, and other policy decision-makers – including organizational partners like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and many other farm-based organizations and scientific societies.
Elizabeth Brownlee, a beginning farmer from Indiana, said it best: ERS and NIFA are not needed in farming communities; they are needed in Washington D.C. working hard to produce the best research and analysis that supports our nation’s farmers and serves policymakers. Further, Brownlee went on to say:
“The relocation of ERS and NIFA will make it more challenging for farm groups to collaborate with these agencies and may jeopardize the ability of policy makers in Washington, DC to craft evidence-based, effective policy solutions for the next generation of farmers and ranchers…The ability of Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to respond to our challenges will only be delayed and made more difficult with the relocation of ERS and NIFA. Farmers and ranchers are often not working directly with these agencies, but have a stake in the work that they do.” – Elizabeth Brownlee
Further, Dr. Payne insisted the move made little sense given that NIFA does not work directly with farmers and ranchers, but rather through an extensive network of academic institutions and extension personnel – who are already spread out across the country and work closely with farmers in their states and regions.
“Farmers are among the ultimate beneficiaries of NIFA-funded science. USDA has an efficient network of land-grant university Extension agents and research stations to provide information to those farmers in their communities and across the country. It’s a proven model that can instantaneously disperse vital scientific discoveries and new methods to farmers who can use it. To say ERS and NIFA need to be geographically closer to farmers is to miss how effective this network is in delivering innovation to farmers nationwide.”
This argument directly refutes Secretary Perdue’s claim that NIFA would better serve farmers if the agency were located outside the beltway. According to Dr. Payne, NIFA’s main clients are researchers and land-grant universities who conduct interdisciplinary research across federal agencies – including the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency – all of whom are located in the Washington Capital Region. As a convener of scientists and research institutions, NIFA works to ensure the best and most innovative projects are funded in order to advance agriculture research.
NSAC is deeply troubled by the Administration’s unilateral decision to uproot these core scientific agencies, as well as the myriad negative ramifications to agriculture that will result from this relocation. NSAC submitted written testimony to the Committee, once again raising concerns shared by many other stakeholders, that a relocation of these two research agencies only serves to undermine the important agricultural research and economic analysis they do.
NSAC supports the Committee’s efforts to raise concern about the impending move and applauds the House Committee on Appropriations for approving and sending the to the floor a FY 2020 funding bill that would prohibit the use of USDA funding to relocate ERS and NIFA.
To date, USDA has not provided a cost-benefit analysis to justify the move, nor has it allowed public input from stakeholders. Last month, the short list of the top sites vying to host the agencies was announced: Perdue (IN), Kansas City (KS/MO), and the Research Triangle (NC). The timeline on a final selection has not yet been announced. In the meantime, NSAC urges Congress to act and prohibit further action on a move that will undoubtedly impact farmers, consumers, and trade – at a time American farmers can ill-afford.