Behind every great innovation lies a lot of patience, struggle, science, and money. When it comes to food and agriculture, we can thank years of effort on plant breeding for reliably crisp and tasty apples, and refrigeration and freezers for enabling a year-round supply, just to name a couple.
This Pi Day, there is a timely opportunity to honor math, science, and pie all at once. That’s because AFRI—the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a critical agricultural research program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture—is on the cusp of being able to deliver even more when it comes to advancing the way we grow our food and its impact on the environment, wildlife, and farmers.
The numbers are in: public funds for advancing food & farms are slim pickings
While advancement in science, including agriculture, can be costly, I doubt many of us would look to the past and say it wasn’t worth it. Yet, despite our apparent appreciation for many of the food and agricultural outcomes that have improved our lives, investment in agricultural research has been—counterintuitively—stalling.
According to recent estimates, only 5 percent of global research and development funds go to agriculture, the fraction of public to private funding for food and agriculture has been on the decline in the US and other countries for decades, and US public dollars for such work have been dwindling. Yet, agricultural research has a large economic multiplier, it is the backbone of our food system, and we need to stop neglecting our investment in its future. Fortunately, a big opportunity to do just that has arrived.
On the table on Capitol Hill: doubling the “pie” for science on food and farms
This year, President Obama’s budget made a commendable statement of support for AFRI, asking Congress to double the program’s funding from last year. At $700 million, the program would be fully funded for the first time since its creation in 2008.
Although you may not have heard of AFRI, it is kind of a big deal. AFRI represents the largest available pool of public competitive funding for food and agriculture—not only within the USDA, but in the U.S. While agencies such as the DOE, NSF, and NASA have funded research dabbling in agriculture, the bulk of the opportunity for research on food or farms for the public good lies within AFRI.
So what’s in it for you? Well, if you are not a researcher, you may have to be patient to feel benefits from AFRI—but they will come. This “gold standard” and wide-reaching program has a strong record of accomplishment, even despite a severe shortage of resources. Ultimately, the funded research has the potential to translate to better foods, fibers and fuels, while also protecting your favorite rivers, lakes, and parks; securing cleaner water and air; producing healthier soils and foods; battling climate change; and ensuring the long-term viability of the farms and ranches that we rely on.
Finding some spare change for big change
It’s no secret that our society is wrangling with numerous food system challenges. Farmers are in major debt (>50% work other jobs for primary income), there has been a rapid loss of farmland (18,000 farms and 1 million acres in 1 year), and there is a growing shortage of graduates from agricultural and related programs (by nearly 25,000 students annually) .
These realities don’t put us in a great position to face rising threats, such as the recently reported possibility that climate change could so severely affect the food supply that nutritional deficiencies could take over 500,000 lives. While research funds can’t solve everything, they can provide a foundation for change and for confronting an uncertain future. With this perspective, research supported by AFRI costs pennies and can pay big dividends.
Researchers see a need for a bigger slice for agroecology. AFRI can help.
Of the research areas sorely in need of additional public funding, agroecology stands out. Agroecological practices, including many of the practices that organic farmers rely on, are designed to boost the health of the farmland and surrounding environment.
According to a recent conservative estimate, the fraction of USDA’s competitive funds that support projects that incorporate any element of agroecology is below 15 percent. Furthermore, over 314 scientists representing nearly all 50 states and several countries endorsed the urgent need for agroecological research. Although an increase in AFRI would not guarantee more funds for this type of agriculture, it would be an important step in the right direction.
Got 15 minutes?
Whether or not you are a researcher, farmer, gardener, student, or agriculture or food-system worker, don’t forget—as an eater—that the research and education projects funded by AFRI are among the best bets for assuring a food system the benefits the public (and that means you).
If you see the potential for AFRI to deliver on improving the food system, there is still time to contact your representative and voice your support for full funding for AFRI. It might even take less time than it took to read this blog post. Then, of course, go reward yourself with some (sustainable) “pi”!