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Opinion: Alarm over decline in U.S. government spending for ag research

Agriculturalists have only a few areas of universal agreement. We all like cooperative weather. We all dislike food waste. We all believe that nothing is more important than farm safety.

The short list also includes, or should include, strong support for public-sector funding of ag research.

So all of us in ag need to be concerned, even alarmed, that U.S. government spending for ag research, adjusted for inflation, continues to decline. As a result, China has surpassed the United States as the global leader in public-sector spending on ag research and development.

The issue takes on even greater significance now, with work intensifying on the 2018 farm bill and farm groups fine-tuning their priorities.

This should go without saying, but we'll say it anyway. Ag research is critically important to agriculture, the nation and the world. Fighting weeds, insects and disease, developing new and better seed varieties, enhancing conservation, increasing sustainability, integrating new equipment technology into farming operations — all these, and more, are needed to provide the world's growing population with a safe, secure and affordable food supply.

One statistic to reinforce the point: Total ag output in the United States rose 169 percent from 1948 to 2013, even though land and labor use declined during the period. The increase "stemmed from the adoption of a whole suite of innovations in crop and livestock breeding, nutrient use, pest management, farm practices and farm equipment and structures. These innovations are the fruits of agricultural R&D," according to a November 2016 analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For years, sluggish funding for ag research has been a concern. A 2013 Agweek article took a long look at the problem, which hasn't improved and may even have worsened in the past four years.

A 2016 analysis by USDA's Economic Research Service looks at the issue, too, though many of the numbers in it extend only to 2013.

Why is public spending on ag research declining?

Complacency may be the biggest reason. U.S. agriculture has been so good for so long that many people, including some lawmakers, take it for granted. America hasn't suffered food shortages since the Dust Bowl (in the 1930s), contributing to a dangerously false sense of food security.

Lack of awareness about "maintenance spending," which can account for 40 percent to 60 percent of all ag research costs, is a factor, too. Research to achieve new production gains isn't enough; investments to maintain past gains are needed, too. One example: crop diseases can cut sharply into yields, reducing or even eliminating yields gains achieved from earlier research. New research to battle those crop diseases is needed.

And let's be honest: Farmers and farm groups may share in the blame. Some ag policy-makers complain that farm groups are too concerned with protecting government payments for their own commodity, at the expense of funding for ag research.

Decide for yourself to whether those complaints are valid. But they definitely exist and need to be considered.

There's a positive trend in ag research, too. Private-sector spending on it has increased substantially in the United States.

But don't pin too much hope on that, ag policymakers say. The private-sector increase doesn't fully offset the public-sector decrease.

What's more, they say, private-sector spending is a complement to, not a substitute for, what the public sector spends. As the 2016 Economic Research Service report puts it, "The public sector is still responsible for much of the fundamental research that creates the building blocks for major agricultural innovations."

So we urge farm groups and others in ag to staunchly support funding for public-sector ag research during what will undoubtedly will be long, contentious debate over the 2018 farm bill. Remember, agriculture still needs — will always need — the "slow magic."