The Farm Bill may not sound that flashy, but you might be surprised by the vital contribution it makes to the on-the-ground decisions of farmers, and the consequences of those decisions from soil to spoon. Or maybe I should say, from science to soil to spoon, because research is a key piece of this contribution, and one I’d like to talk about today.
Wait, what’s the Farm Bill again?
If you’re not familiar with the Farm Bill, here are some basic facts. The Farm Bill started in 1933, in response to the Dust Bowl. It’s a collection of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and investments broadly related to food and agriculture that are reviewed about every five years and passed into law as a giant package. The Agricultural Act of 2014—the official name of the last Farm Bill—will expire in 2018, and the process of drafting the next one, including finding ways to protect and improve programs, is well under way.
Of the 12 sections (or “titles”) included in the 2014 bill, the seventh covers “Research, Extension, and Related Matters.” Projected spending for this slice of the bill was a measly 0.2% of the bill’s total expenditures ($800 million of more than $488 billion). However, investments in research pave the way for the future, and they tend to pay back big-time, so the research title is important.
Here are my top 7 reasons Congress should invest more heavily in the Farm Bill’s Title 7 programs:
- Public research creates public benefits. At the most basic level, research made possible through the Farm Bill is critical simply because it is research for the public good. In the United States, public funding for food and farm research has been in decline, and concerns about corporate influence on research directions have been on the rise. To make matters worse, urgently needed agroecology research is unlikely to attract private funding, as it tends to reduce reliance on purchased inputs, while increasing benefits that cannot be easily monetized. Therefore, as scientists have attested, remaining public research funds are essential, and should be increased. Such additional research support is needed across all USDA agencies within the Research, Extension, and Education (REE) Mission Area, which include internal and external, as well as competitive and non-competitive, research projects.
- Competitive grants inspire cutting-edge science. Competitive grants are an important component of Farm Bill-supported research. The largest is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI, authorized for $700 million; read more here). However, additional funds are available through other programs, such as those focused on organic agriculture (especially the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, OREI, authorized $20 million per year). By making funds available through a competitive process, the research title enables the USDA to selectively review the most innovative project ideas each year. This approach stimulates a competitive spirit that encourages the development of novel research that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.
- Sustainable agriculture starts with farmers. Among the available competitive research grant programs made possible through the Farm Bill, a smaller but immensely valuable one is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program. This program was created by the 1990 Farm Bill and is unique in that it is entirely focused on sustainable agriculture and facilitates farmer-driven research. Recently, sustainable agriculture scientists emphasized the value of community-based and farmer-participatory research, indicating that SARE fills an important and under-supported niche. Yet, despite its value, SARE has never received the full funding for which it was authorized ($60 million per year).
- The next generation of farmers and ranchers needs our support. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is a Farm Bill program that was allocated $20 million per year (at least 5% of which is required to go toward supporting military veterans) to help beginning farmers get on their feet. The need for this type of support has become increasingly pressing, as the average age of farmers has been rising, and many obstacles—such as limited access to land, credit, and training—are barriers to entry for new farmers. Programs like the BFRDP can help provide just enough support to help get new farmers the resources they need to pursue their goals.
- Partnerships leverage private funding. With public funding falling short, another strategy to pull together more funds for research is through public-private partnerships. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) is a non-profit that was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to accomplish just that. FFAR was allocated a relatively large sum of money—$200 million—that could be granted once a private match was secured. Early grants from FFAR have shown great promise, in that they address gaps in knowledge of broad interest to sustainable food systems, including aspects of soil health, integrated crop and livestock systems, and more.
- Research programs can make space to advance racial and social justice in the food system, across all Land Grant Colleges and Universities. Advancing racial and social justice, and equity, in food systems science has been put forward by experts as a top priority. In this same spirit, it’s essential that research, extension and education supported by the Farm Bill emphasize the needs of the full suite of stakeholders in the Land Grant system—a system that includes not only the original 1862 institutions, but also the 1890 historically black colleges and universities and Tuskegee University, and the 1994 tribal colleges and universities. Recognizing the unique strengths and needs of diverse communities and institutions is likely to lead to the most powerful food systems solutions (for one example, see this report on the Farm Bill needs of native communities).
- Agricultural extension strengthens connections from science to practice, and practice to science. The Cooperative Extension system started even before the Farm Bill did, and was developed to ensure that scientific findings related to farming and ranching made it to the individuals and communities that could put the knowledge to practice. In addition to delivering science to stakeholder, this crucial program also serves as a bridge from farms to universities, making scientists aware of the top challenges and opportunities experienced by farmers and ranchers. Today, many of the funds and programs that ensure the success of extension programs are supported through the research title as well.
What’s the next step to getting the most research bang out of the Farm Bill buck?
The current Farm Bill will expire in 2018, and legislators are working to draft new legislation to replace it. If they don’t make the September 30 deadline, several programs that are most central to sustainable agriculture research (including OREI, SARE, BFRDP, and FFAR) will be stranded without any funding at all. To ensure the survival of these specific programs and to encourage the support of the research title overall, a wide number of agricultural stakeholders have already made their suggestions for needed farm bill reforms.
For example, just recently, a coalition of over 60 members called for an significant increase in funding for several Farm Bill research programs. Also, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition released their platform for the upcoming Farm Bill, including priorities related to research and extension. Earlier this year, new legislation proposed increased support for organic research (the Organic Agriculture Research Act, which we wrote about here). And, the new Food and Farm Act also highlights a need to expand research and development dollars for food systems in the next Farm Bill. Even individual scientists have spoken up to make a stronger case for the public agricultural research (see Emily Monosson’s letter to the editor on SARE, and Cynthia Annett’s letter on USDA research overall).
While a lot has already happened, there’s much more to come. So, all science fans out there—please stay tuned.