Perdue’s Paradox: Proposed USDA Reorganization Would Undermine Farmers and Science-Based Research

March 14, 2019 | 1:15 pm
Photo: USDA/CC by public domain
Mike Lavender
Former Contributor

Presidential budgets are wish lists. Very detailed and public wish lists.

That’s why on Monday, when the Trump Administration released its FY2020 Budget, it was alarming to see a 7 percent reduction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area.

Thankfully, Congress has routinely rejected President’s Trumps budget proposals. Still, there’s a lot we can learn from the hundreds of millions in proposed cuts to food and agriculture research.

Late last year, the USDA unveiled major changes to two of the Department’s world-class research agencies—the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA), and the Economic Research Service (ERS). At the time, USDA claimed the changes were to benefit taxpayers.

Since the changes were announced, key Senators and Representatives, bipartisan former agency heads, and thousands of researchers have raised legitimate concerns—from scientific integrity to whether or not the proposed changes would increase and improve publicly funded USDA research. Of all these concerns, one fundamental question still looms large:

Will American agriculture research—and the farmers, ranchers, and consumers who rely on it—benefit from the proposal?  

With a quick scan of recent headlines, it’s clear that from international trade anxiety to the devastating havoc of natural disasters, uncertainty is ruling the day for many producers around the country. At times of uncertainty, USDA’s role is to provide leadership and stability.

Strategic investments in food and agriculture research are some of the best our government can make. Scientific advances generated by ERS and NIFA—the two agencies impacted by the proposed reorganization—have benefitted countless communities in all 50 states and have contributed to rural economic development, food safety and security, and environmental stewardship, among others. But the good doesn’t stop there—the USDA itself has said that public investment in agriculture research results in “large economic benefits with annual rates of return between 20 and 60 percent.”

Given the clear benefit of research and the need for stability in American agriculture, we need to increase and improve our public investment in food and agriculture research—not produce half-baked proposals which further sow doubt about USDA’s diminishing leadership in agriculture research.

Yet, paradoxically, the proposed reorganization of ERS and NIFA has only raised doubt as to whether USDA still values agriculture research. In fact, the press release announcing the reorganization cited three justifications for the proposal—and none of them include increasing or improving public investment in food and agriculture research. Even USDA’s own employees have expressed their deep concerns about the intent behind the move.

Congressional requests for clarity from USDA have gone unanswered for months even though lawmakers have now requested “an indefinite delay” to the proposed reorganization. On March 12, USDA further ignored Congress and announced the 67 finalists for the new ERS and NIFA location. Now more than ever, it’s becoming obvious that USDA has no desire to listen to Congress.

Given the mounting opposition and continued lack of clarity on the proposed reorganization, it’s completely reasonable to ask—what’s the true motivation behind the reorganization? Will it benefit food and agriculture research, and the millions who rely on it? If so, why is there no evidence after more than seven months?

Unfortunately, the evidence is already in plain sight: the President’s budget proposes more than $225 million in cuts to food and agriculture research, which maintains the theme from previous Trump budget proposals. An administration that values rigorous science-based food and agriculture research wouldn’t do that.

American farmers, ranchers, and consumers should never have to question whether USDA has their back, nor should the talented and dedicated staff of USDA’s research agencies.

Yet, with this proposal, that’s exactly what’s happened.