Photo: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg

As a Government Funding Deadline Looms, Scientists Seek Support for Agroecology Research

, senior Washington representative, Food & Environment | December 21, 2017, 4:05 pm EDT
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Among the many challenges Congress faces in the dwindling days of 2017 is this: the federal government will run out of money on December 22 unless lawmakers can agree on a budget extension.

In recent years, the threat of a government shutdown has become an unofficial December tradition in Washington. Unsurprisingly, this lack of certainty has real impacts on millions of Americans from all walks of life. But in recent years, scientist and researchers have started speaking up.

My colleague Tali Robbins works closely with these scientists and researchers and below has laid out the current landscape of Congressional funding, the importance of agroecological research, and exactly how new voices are getting involved:

In the vast complexity of funding the government, agriculture research rarely makes headlines. Yet, few investments are more important for the future of farming, rural communities, clean water, and healthy food. That’s because the federal budget is the key vehicle through which scientists, farmers, and others who care about our food system can push for more support of sustainable agriculture. Perhaps the biggest opportunity to hasten the transition to a more sustainable food and farming system is through public research funding for agroecology.

Agroecology shows tremendous promise to support farmers’ bottom line while achieving positive social and environmental outcomes, yet recent analysis shows that this area of research is vastly underfunded. Some USDA research programs have enjoyed modest funding increases in previous rounds of budget negotiations, but with pressure mounting from fiscal conservatives on the Hill, these programs are under serious threat. Let’s backtrack to earlier this year to understand the current budget drama and the outlook for agroecology in the next fiscal year.

In March, the President proposed a “skinny budget,” the administration’s first major foray into government funding decisions, which decimated research funding at USDA and throughout other federal agencies. Thankfully, allies in both the House and Senate recognized that public support of agricultural research results in an enormous return on investment of more than 20 percent, and they rejected Trump’s proposal wholesale. The agreement that was eventually signed into law in May maintained or increased funding levels for some of the key USDA programs that fund agroecological research, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI; a $25 million increase to $375 million), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE; a $2.3 million increase to $27 million), and the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI; holding steady at $20 million).

As that deal was set to expire earlier this fall, the President signed another bill extending those same funding levels through December 8, and then signed yet another extension through December 22. That means that as of today, Congress has just days to reach another agreement to keep the government open – and keep researchers at USDA and land grant universities around the country working to find solutions to the nation’s most pressing agricultural challenges.

Agricultural research has historically found bipartisan support and rightly so. Despite the polarized political environment and the legislative logjam, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that sustainable agriculture research programs need more funding. For example, SARE – the primary vehicle to conduct on-farm research – was only able to fund 7 percent of qualified pre-proposals for Research and Education grants last year. Farmer-driven research that would have supported farmers seeking to incorporate sustainable practices that mitigate the impact of floods and droughts, prevent fertilizer runoff, and sequester carbon in the soil has been left unfunded.

Over the last several months, congressional appropriators have drafted funding bills for the next fiscal year. And agricultural scientists around the country mobilized to impress upon these legislators the importance of fully funding key USDA programs that prioritize agroecology. Researchers from Oregon to Kansas to New Mexico have been working to demonstrate the value these programs have to farmers, ranchers, and rural communities around the country.

Steve Guldan, Professor of Plant and Environmental Sciences and superintendent of the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at New Mexico State University, recently met with the office of Senator Tom Udall (D-NM). Senator Udall serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has been a champion for agroecology research. I reached out to Dr. Guldan to find out more about the impact of USDA funds on agricultural research in New Mexico.

You have decades of experience at New Mexico’s largest land grant university. What role do programs like AFRI, SARE, and OREI play in supporting region-specific research?

The southwestern U.S. has a different combination of climate, soils, and elevations than other areas of the country. For this reason, the development of sustainable farming and ranching practices must be based upon research carried out in our region. AFRI, SARE, and OREI are grant programs that allow researchers from the diverse regions that exist in the U.S. to develop agricultural and natural resource management principles and systems appropriate for each region.

SARE is the only USDA competitive grants research program that focuses solely on sustainable agriculture. Could you tell us about your recent SARE-funded research and its relevance to agricultural stakeholders in your state?

SARE allowed us to develop and evaluate low-cost high tunnels for winter greens (e.g., lettuce, spinach, kale) production systems, including organic systems, that can be used in our region of high elevations and relatively cold winters by making the most of our many sunny days. Increasing the capacity to grow vegetables locally during the winter months can help farmers develop more marketing options as well as provide locally-grown produce to schools, restaurants, and year-round farmers markets.

You drove two hours to meet with Senator Udall’s office and discuss your concerns around this budget. Tell us about that experience and the reception you got from the senator.

I was pleased to find Senator Udall’s staff to be very interested in hearing about the importance of AFRI, SARE, and related USDA research programs to New Mexico agricultural research. They were very generous in the amount of time they provided to me and another researcher. The two staff members we met with were experienced and knowledgeable about the legislative process and how funding for these research programs fits into it.

The Senate and House Appropriations committees have passed their funding packages, which tentatively include some important funding increases to key research programs. However, appropriators in both chambers must now negotiate to determine final spending levels on USDA programs for the remainder of FY18. Congress has a jam-packed schedule until the holiday break, but it’s imperative that appropriators recognize the importance of publicly funded agroecological research and the value that AFRI, SARE, and OREI provide to farmers, ranchers, and communities around the country.

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