Farm scientists see ripening opportunity for greater federal support

Sept. 13, 2016

If the nation’s agricultural-research agenda were driven solely by industry, companies might just pump out as many corn-based products as the market would bear, without fretting over the implications.

After all, corn from Midwest farms usually brings in more revenue than alternatives like oats, and the long-term disadvantages of relying on a single crop might not be reflected in the company’s bottom line.

That’s why it’s important that the government play a strong role in steering agricultural science as technology advances, said Gabe Gusmini, director of agro discovery and sustainability research at PepsiCo, North America’s largest food and beverage producer.

Industry-led research does play a central role in tackling problems such as improving crop yield and solving disease outbreaks, Mr. Gusmini and other farm experts said. But modern agricultural challenges are manifesting themselves in problems well outside the direct responsibility of farmers and food companies, reaching deeply into matters of human health, environmental degradation, and even war and peace.

At a time when wheat and oat production is being forced north into Canada by surging demand for U.S.-grown corn, the industry needs a basic-science effort to grow those crops effectively in their new locations, Mr. Gusmini said.

“If we could all just live off of corn, that would be fantastic, because it’s an extremely optimized system already,” he said, “But we know that’s not realistic.”

Finding the right mix of government-funded basic science and industry-financed applied science has long been a challenge in a variety of subject areas. Now, as Congress debates the federal budget for the 2017 fiscal year, farm interests are determined to correct an imbalance in their world that they see as increasingly untenable.

Falling Fortunes

For more than four decades, the U.S. share of global public spending on agricultural research and development has declined. As in most sectors, privately financed farm research outpaces the publicly funded portion. Total U.S. federal spending on agricultural research is about $2 billion a year, roughly 15 times less than that spent on human health science.

That last data point might be one of the most important ones put before Congress, said Sally J. Rockey, a former top official of the National Institutes of Health, who last year became executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture. The foundation is a congressionally authorized nonprofit corporation charged with using federal money and new private resources to support farm-related science.

Ms. Rockey spent the last seven years heading the grant award program at the world’s largest funder of biomedical research, watching as forces outside the immediate authority of NIH assumed growing influence over human health.

At the same time, those outside forces played a growing role in biomedical research. The basic mechanisms behind one of the biggest recent breakthroughs in human medical care, the genome-editing technology known as Crispr, was itself discovered by food-industry scientists.

Such developments indicate that Congress should take farm research a lot more seriously as part the overall desire to increase health-related spending, Ms. Rockey said. “We haven’t been successful in really elevating agricultural research in general to the levels it needs to be,” she said.

Making the Case

An immediate goal for farm-research advocates waging the budget battle is strengthening the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the nation’s top peer-reviewed competitive-grants program for basic and applied agricultural sciences. Congress created the program in 2008 and promised $700 million in support. So far it has been spending only half that much on it.

New technologies in genomics and computerization make agricultural research “a field that is uniquely poised to take off, given the opportunity by the federal government,” said Tim Fink, director of research and policy analysis at the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation, a coalition of industry and university advocates.

His foundation keeps a list of university-based scientists with projects and ideas awaiting more robust federal support. They include Jason Woodworth, a research associate professor in animal sciences and industry at Kansas State University, who helped stop a diarrhea virus in pigs that caused at least $900 million in economic losses in 2014.

When the virus first began hitting pigs in the United States in 2013, farmers and their veterinarians didn’t know what it was. The industry offered about $2 million in grant money to start figuring it out, said Neil Dierks, chief executive of the National Pork Producers Council. The industry was willing to put up money to fight the virus, Mr. Dierks said, but scientists wouldn’t have succeeded as quickly as they did if not for one thing: federally financed basic research that helped them develop a base level of understanding about vaccines and their transmission.

Victories such as that could give agricultural researchers strong ammunition in their push for the extra $350 million. On the other hand, Congress might ask why the farm industry, with so much money at stake, can’t cover such costs itself.

It’s a reasonable question, said Mr. Dierks, who argued that the value to society warrants greater public spending on agricultural research. The computerization of farming, he said, now helps guide and vastly improve a range of decisions in planting, watering, and harvesting. But computers weren’t developed with farming in mind, and farming represents just one of the many benefits of the public research investment in computer technology, he said.

Federally financed basic research often fulfills needs that a company watching its bottom line on a short-term basis might not study, he and other advocates said.

An important example, said Andrea Basche, a science fellow in the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is the need for cover crops — plants that are used to keep soil in place during the winter and other periods when a main cash crop such as corn or soybeans is not growing. Cover crops are found on only about 2 percent of eligible American farmland, Ms. Basche said. That’s because of a lack of scientific research into what cover crops work best in which situations and what long-term benefits accrue.

A significant federal increase in agricultural-science spending may need to overcome at least one major policy battle also taking place this year. The Obama administration, hoping to bolster basic science for the long run, made a tactical decision to shift much of its recommended spending on basic science into the mandatory portion of the budget.

Congress is unlikely to go along with that idea. In the meantime the administration’s suggested level of basic-science support in its usual home, the discretionary portion of the budget, is technically slated for a 2 percent reduction.

“One of the underappreciated facts of the budget,” said Matthew Hourihan, director of federal budget policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, referring to the administration’s fiscal 2017 blueprint, “was how much basic research was being cut.”

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at

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