The letter includes ten recommendations on how the next farm bill can address the pressing challenges faced by today’s American farmers and consumers, including:
- Increasing funding for research programs across the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Strengthening and expanding competitive grant programs
- Implementing overarching structural improvements across USDA
USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers. Photo credit: USDA.
America’s investment in agricultural research has drastically declined over the last decade. While private research and breeding programs continue to grow in power and influence, federal investment in public and openly accessible research programs has dwindled. This lack of federal investment is weakening our agricultural industry’s ability to remain competitive with other global powers, like China. In 2008, China surpassed the U.S. in total public research funding, and since 2013, China has invested double the amount that the U.S. has in public agricultural research and development.
Research is paramount to all aspects of the food supply. Farmers rely on publicly funded agricultural research to help develop solutions for the challenges they face in their fields every day. Public research also informs food system issues related to nutrition, food safety, climate variability, public health, and many other social, economic, and environmental issues.
Without robust funding for public research, especially research that promotes ecologically-based production systems, scientific and technical innovation is stifled. U.S. farmers and ranchers can also lose potential economic opportunities, because without the critical information and training provided by publicly-funded research, they are unable to fully participate in and benefit from emerging markets.
The consensus letter urges Congress to double total USDA food and agricultural research, education, and extension funding by the end of the next five-year farm bill cycle. The groups ask that annual funding be increased from the current $3 billion a year, to $6 billion goal by 2023. This figure includes the total funding of the following agencies and their respective programs: Agricultural Research Service (ARS); National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA); Economic Research Service (ERS); and National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS).
Competitive grant programs
The consensus groups also urge Congress to renew and permanently fund the competitive grant programs that are funded directly via the farm bill: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI). Each of these receives their annual funding directly from the farm bill, but only SCRI is currently funded on a permanent basis. The groups are asking Congress to make all of these permanent. Each of these programs was established with bipartisan support in earlier farm bills, and each is in very high demand.
Specifically, the letter recommends that Congress renew the permanently-funded SCRI at no less than its current $80 million annual direct funding level, and to renew both BFRDP and OREI with permanent direct funding set for each at no less than $50 million annually. It also calls on Congress to renew FFAR with direct funding of $250 million, with $50 million obligated in each of the fiscal years for the period FY 2019-2023.
The letter also calls on Congress to create a level playing field for applicants to USDA research programs by eliminating across the board matching requirements for competitive grants programs within NIFA. Matching grant requirements within NIFA currently only apply to some institutions, agencies, and organizations. This puts an unnecessary burden on a group of research and educational institutions and organizations that could contribute quality research to enhance the future of agriculture research. Federal research programs should support the best scientific research that advances national research priorities, regardless of which institution is performing that research.
Implementing structural improvements
The 2008 Farm Bill authorized staff positions for the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) – including “division chiefs” for all areas of the research. Due to budgeting issues, however, USDA has not adequately addressed this mandate. The Office of the Inspector General at USDA has confirmed that these roles are not being filled adequately.
The lack of adequate staffing and the high staff turnover rate is crippling the agency’s development of the knowledge and expertise needed to excel in their OCS roles. To allow for better strategic planning, increased coordination, and reduced redundancy across the research-related agencies, the letter recommends that these positions be filled on a more permanent basis.
Additionally, the letter urges the preservation of current law requiring the USDA REE Under Secretary to also serve as the Chief Scientist of the Department, and the establishment of a Strategic Initiative Fund within OCS to respond to emerging pressing needs and to opportunities for cross-agency transformative research.
Next steps and farm bill implications
The consensus recommendations delivered to Congress are complementary to NSAC’s own comprehensive farm bill recommendations. While each individual organization within the research coalition has their own specific priorities and objectives, each member of the consensus group also believes that collaboration and unification is essential for protecting and enhancing America’s family farms and advancing agricultural science. As the farm bill process continues, NSAC looks forward to working with members, partners and allies in the research and agricultural advocacy spheres, and with champions in Congress.
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