There is welcome news in the new year for agricultural scientists: new opportunities for research funding. I have previously noted areas of research that are in urgent need of greater investment. Investments in these areas promise to pay off—even if you’re not a scientist, farmer, or rancher.
Advances in labs and on fields may not be on your radar, but don’t forget that what happens on farms and ranches hundreds of miles away can affect the recreational lake in your community, the birds and butterflies in your garden, the contents of your grocery cart, and so on. Thus, these research dollars can bring benefits to your homes and neighborhoods, such as healthier and tastier foods, richer soils that support both crops and biodiversity, cleaner lakes and drinking water, and greater resiliency on farms that can help anchor vibrant communities.
Four+ opportunities worth cheering about
While it’s yet to be determined what ideas scientists will bring to the table, or which projects will ultimately get the green light for funding, these are some of the noteworthy opportunities popping up.
- Increased agricultural research funds for our nation’s leading research and extension programs
Of the research agencies that gained from the final 2016 budget, one of the most exciting was USDA’s AFRI (Agriculture and Food Research Initiative). This program includes the biggest pot of competitive funds that USDA has to offer and supports an array of important research, including work on sustainable agroecosystems and climate change and resiliency. After some tug of war, the final 7.7% rise amounts to $25 million extra—less than the president’s request and well below the authorized budget, but still helpful.
- More opportunities for farmer-driven sustainable agriculture research
Another essential USDA program saw a relatively big gain in funds (9%, for a total of $2 million): SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program). While SARE awards smaller and fewer grants than AFRI (compare their new $24.7 million budget with AFRI’s $350 million), they are the only USDA competitive funding program focused explicitly on sustainable agriculture. These grants always include farmers, and can support highly impactful projects.
- A chance for more foundational science in agricultural research
The National Science Foundation is not known for agriculturally-oriented research, but as they developed their new INFEWS (Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems) program last year they reached out for ideas from the nation’s agronomists, crop and soil scientists. The result: a clear call for more foundational scientific progress at the food, energy, and water nexus and an incentive for agricultural scientists to get involved.
- New ways to engage the private sector in research for the public good
Despite this year’s wins, there is still a disconcerting trend of public funding representing a smaller and smaller proportion of agricultural research and development. As we continue to push for more funding from the public sector, new programs like FFAR (the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research) are attempting to bring more private funds to key areas of research (soil health, sustainable farming, and more). While this program is just getting on its feet, it is worth keeping an eye on!
Since everything is connected, you don’t have to think too far out of the box to see how the increases in research funding in other agencies, such as NOAA (6%), NASA Earth Science (8%), USGS (2%), DOE Bio/Environmental (3%), and NIH (7%) can advance tools, technologies, and knowledge that may pave the way toward a better food and farming system.
We do need a new green revolution, but what will it be?
A recent New York Times opinion column called for a new green revolution. This year’s new funding may be a start, but also raises a critical question: what research actually needs to be done? This question tends to instigate much more debate, often distorted by conversations about yields (it’s just not that simple). While maintaining productivity under increasingly uncertain environments needs to remain a priority, a successful new green revolution must go beyond yield to ensure outcomes more in line with the holistic needs of the environment and public health.
Calling all agroecologists
Agroecology is a promising path toward the new green revolution that we need—one that continues to value and maintain productivity but puts greater weight on net outcomes that benefit the broader world. However, before great research can be funded, great researchers must step up to the plate with their best ideas. Scientists—we are calling on you to lead the way, and we know you are out there.
I’ll be waiting anxiously to see what new science ends up on the horizon. In the meantime: three cheers for a productive year toward a healthier and more sustainable agriculture!