Recent headlines about the US Department of Agriculture’s leadership and scientific integrity have been unsettling, as have indications that the Trump administration intends to slash budgets for agriculture and climate research and science more generally. But today there’s a rare piece of good news: a bipartisan trio in Congress has introduced legislation that would benefit just about everyone—farmers and eaters, scientists and food system stakeholders, rural and urban Americans. Not only that, but the new bill promises to achieve these outcomes while maintaining a shoestring budget.
Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) are sponsoring the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017, which calls for an increase in mandatory funding for a small but crucial USDA research program, the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI). Congress allocated this program a mere $20 million annually in both the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, but that small investment stretched across the country with grants awarded in more than half of all states. The new bill proposes to increase that investment to $50 million annually in future years.
While a $30 million increase to a $20 million program may seem like a lot, it is worth noting that these numbers are small relative to other programs. For example, the USDA recently announced that its flagship research program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), will receive $425 million this year (another piece of good news, by the way). And many R&D programs at other agencies have much higher price tags (e.g., the NIH will receive $34 billion this year). But the return on investment of agricultural research and investment is very high, so this increase could do a lot of good.
While there are many reasons we are excited about a possible budget boost for the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI), I’ll highlight just three:
1) We need more agroecologically-inspired research. More than 450 scientists from all 50 states have signed our expert statement calling for more public support for agroecological research, which is urgently needed to address current and future farming challenges that affect human health, the environment, and urban and rural communities. This call is built upon agroecology’s successful track record of finding ways to work with nature rather than against it, producing nutritious food while also boosting soil health, protecting our drinking water, and more. Unfortunately, the diminishing overall support for public agricultural research is particularly problematic for agroecology, because this research tends to reduce farmers reliance on purchased inputs, which means that gaps in funding are unlikely to be filled by the private sector. So, programs that direct public funding more toward agroecological research and practice are particularly needed, and OREI is one of these.
2) When it comes to agroecology, this program is a rock star. The OREI funds some of the most effective federal agricultural research, especially around ecologically-driven practices that can protect our natural resources and maintain farmer profits. One highlight of the program is that it stresses multi-disciplinary research; according the USDA “priority concerns include biological, physical, and social sciences, including economics”, an approach that can help ensure that research leads to farming practices that are both practical and scalable. Importantly, this program also targets projects that will “assist farmers and ranchers with whole farm planning by delivering practical information”, making sure that research will directly and immediately benefit those who need it most. But it’s not just the program description that leads us to believe this is a strong investment. In fact, our own research on competitive USDA grants found that OREI is among the most important programs for advancing agroecology. And this in-depth analysis of USDA’s organic research programs by the Organic Farming Research Foundation further highlighted the vital importance of OREI.
3) Research from programs like OREI can benefit all farmers, while focusing on practices required for a critical and growing sector of US agriculture. The OREI program is designed to support organic farms first and foremost, funding research conducted on certified organic land or land in transition to organic certification. However, the research from OREI can benefit a much wider group of farmers as well, as such results are relevant to farmers of many scales and farming styles, organic or not. Of course, directing funds to support organic farmers makes lots of sense, since this sector of agriculture is rapidly growing and maintaining high premiums that benefit farmers. But it’s important to recognize that the benefits of the research extend far beyond the organic farming community.
For all of the reasons listed above, this bill marks an important step in the right direction. It is essential that the next farm bill increases support for science-based programs that will ensure the long-term viability of farms while regenerating natural resources and protecting our environment. Expanding the OREI is a smart way forward.