These Investments in Food and Farm Research Will Pay Us Back—Urban and Rural Alike

February 2, 2017 | 5:01 pm
Keefe Keeley, Savanna Institute
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

This fall, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent out an important announcement that went largely unnoticed (those of us interested in food and agriculture were, and continue to be, preoccupied with other things). Namely, the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) reported recent investments in research designed to improve food, fiber, and fuel production while protecting natural resources that farms and communities depend on and recognizing the pivotal importance of the farmer’s bottom line.

To refresh your memory, NIFA is the part of the USDA’s integral Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area (which also includes the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS), and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Before this news falls too far back in the rearview mirror, let’s take a moment to recognize its importance in strengthening America—as a whole.

In public agroecological research, spare change can lead to big change

The $6.7 million investment by NIFA that I am so excited about came via the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Foundational Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment (BNRE) program area. While this is pennies compared to the $156 billion USDA budget, it’s still big.

For one thing, investment in agricultural research and development just tends to pay off. Further, this particular funding program is relatively young and is already helping to fill a gap that is important and urgent, as noted in a statement signed by over 400 PhD experts. While much agricultural research has focused largely on yields, this program encourages research on how anything from “soil, water and sun to plants, animals and people, interact with and affect food production.” It requires attention to economic, societal and environmental benefits to uncover solutions that don’t unintentionally create costly consequences.

Critically, although the current agricultural system—even in a high production year—doesn’t ensure economic success,  BNRE focuses on solutions that not only work for the environment, but can provide better economic incentives and options for farmers and for rural America.

The recent announcement explained how BNRE is enabling progress on working lands that range from grasslands to croplands to forests. Details on new projects (including a powerful workshop on the critical role of soils) are provided here. A few highlights:

In grazing lands ranging from the Chihuahuan Desert to the Corn Belt to Florida, researchers are

  • Considering how adding legumes to pasture can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient loss, increase soil carbon, improve access to local healthy food, and benefit farmers
  • Developing ways to convert lands dominated by invasive species to diverse grasslands that improve pollinator health, biodiversity, and cattle and landowner well-being
  • Evaluating how shrub control methods affect wildlife, plants, livestock productivity, and communities, and searching for ways to use keystone species to speed up restoration
  • Using native grasses and cover crops to reduce fertilizer needs, maximize profits and foster environmental benefits
  • Finding the best grazing and fire management strategies to improve water use, reduce climate impacts, and increase forage production and farm economics

In rural and urban farms from the Midwest to California, teams are

  • Working with farmers to optimize configurations of diversified farms to improve insect management and meet growing demands for local produce
  • Investigating how using multiple species of crops in fields (polycultures versus monocultures) affects yields, economics, weeds, pests, and drought resilience
  • Studying how urban garden management affects biodiversity, pests, pollinators, and food access
  • Evaluating how management practices in farms and gardens have revitalized industrial urban areas, and investigating the role of soils health in sustained improvements

The unique significance of public funding

One of the most important aspects of this new research is quite simply that it is funded publicly.

While the private sector has undoubtedly supported some needed areas of research, private sector funding cannot be expected to fill all the research gaps. When research investments can be recovered through products and profits, for example, private funding is logical. However, as reported in a recent ERS report, there is often little or no incentive for private investment into research geared toward valuable outcomes that are harder to put a price on (such as reduced reliance on fertilizers, or cleaner air and water). To enable this type of research, public funding is imperative.

Even beyond the need for public funds to fill certain research gaps, there are broader reasons why a strong contribution of public funds to food and farm research can be considered critical. As a recent post of Policy Pennings shared, public funding supports academic freedom, independent analysis, and research targeted towards the good of farmers, farm families, and the public. As public institutions become squeezed for resources and private sector funding starts playing a bigger role, additional risks—such as potential bias in academic research—can become a concern.

Taking strides to protect the US lead in public investments for agriculture

The role of the US as a world leader in public investment in agriculture, with all the benefits that can accrue as a result, is at risk.

Historically, the public sector made up the majority of total US agricultural funding (50% between 1970 and 2008), and public funding from the US made up the largest portion of the global investment (20-23% between 1990 and 2006). But recent research has documented that the US is falling behind. The US has cut back on public funding for agricultural R&D while private sector contributions have grown, bringing public sector contributions down to less than 30% of the total, behind private investments. Also, as the US has reduced public investments, other countries have ramped up. As a result, the US share of global public agricultural funds has dropped significantly, to just 13%.

It is time to up our game. And, by the way, the full burden doesn’t have to be on USDA. Other agencies have made relevant investments, which could be built upon. For example, the Department of Energy recently announced $35 million for new projects that could help develop new crops to replenish soil health, conserve water, and reduce climate emissions.

Whether we live in corn country or among skyscrapers, research in an agriculture that jointly considers the economy, society and environment is a smart investment. Thanks to programs like BNRE, the committed administrators and staff that have made programs like this possible – in NIFA and across the USDA, and the researchers who are taking on some of the work outlined above, we are on the right path.

P.S. If you are interested in taking action to support public funding for agriculture, and agroecology, click here!