Opinion: Beware shrinking federal agriculture research and development expenditures

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Wonk (noun) : Definition of wonk: a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field broadly: nerd – a policy wonk or a computer wonk  – Merrian-Webster

Okay.  I’m wonkish.  It’s my responsibility to sweat the small stuff agriculturally speaking that might someday become a thing. (Although I won’t admit to the British take on wonk which ironically is far less flattering. While I am wonkish , I am not wonky.

All that being said there’s a trend I’ve been aware of for the past few years that’s a little disturbing.

What if I told you that the federal government over the next decade might might become less effective in helping to reduce:
• Water and fertilizer use;

• The need for fungicides and pesticides in plant and food production;

• The incidence of foodborne illnesses.

Not to mention an inability to increase the availability of new plant varieties and animal products to deliver food with enhanced nutrient content.

Farmers have a lot on their plate.  Be it disease outbreaks, weather events (hello, climate change) or pest control.

That’s where the federal government comes in.  

Federal Research and Development dollars are crucial to help farmers produce more food, fiber and fuel while at the same time consuming fewer natural resources and protect public health.  

It’s a huge job.

You would think funding for this sort of stuff would be a no brainer. But federal agriculture research and development funding has stagnated in recent years.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’’s Economic Research Service reports in fiscal year 2008 public research and development funding was $5.166 billion dollars.  

By fiscal year 2015,  agriculture research and development dollars had fallen to $4.524 billion dollars.

And if the White House got its way, agricultural research and development dollars would shrink another 23 percent over current levels.

There are huge agricultural challenges facing the feds over the next decade –   genomics, microbiomes, sensors, data and informatics and transdisciplinary research being among the most pressing.  

So says a new report from the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation and 20 FedByScience research institutions.

The report suggests increasing federal research and development dollars could allow for new research to improve health and disease resistance in pigs, increase crop productivity by better understanding soil and root microbiomes, increase food efficiency to make beef production more sustainable, using new technology including sensors to safeguard the food supply and increase knowledge of animal genetics.

The bottom line is all these things are needed to keep up with a growing U.S. population.

And you need to look no farther than China to see their recent surge in agricultural research and development spending – from slightly more than $1 billion in 1990 to more than $9 billion by 2013.

The stagnation of federal agricultural research and development dollars is troubling.  

These funds are important if the U.S. is to continue its preeminence in global science and technology.  

My grandma used to say if you are standing still you’re falling behind. No doubt she’d say that applies here. And I can’t say I’d disagree.

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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