WASHINGTON, DC (March 16, 2017)—The premier program for competitively awarded research grants in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) lacks the funding to reach its full potential, according to testimony heard on Capitol Hill today. The testimony was presented in front of the House Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research—chaired by Representative Rodney Davis—that looked at research in the context of the 2018 Farm Bill.
In FY 2016, the budget of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative—the USDA’s competitive grants program—totaled $350 million. Richard Wilkins, a farmer and member of the board of directors of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, testified that the program should instead have the budget that was originally authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill.
“AFRI should be on par with programs in other agencies, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that fund fundamental, competitive research in support of other national priorities,” noted Jim Carrington, President of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Carrington co-authored the National Research Council report in 2015 that analyzed AFRI and recommended that it have a larger budget and higher priority within USDA.
China, one of the US’s primary competitors in the global marketplace, has invested heavily in this sector and its agricultural research budget is now more than twice the US agriculture research budget. In fact, the USDA’s share of the entire federal research budget has dropped: it was 40 percent in the 1940s, 6.5 percent in the early 1970s, and under 3.5 percent today.
“We appreciate that the administration’s budget holds AFRI’s program at $350 million, but we need to do more,” said Thomas Grumbly, President of SoAR. “Even in the current era of belt-tightening, AFRI’s budget has always had modest growth because Congress has always understood the importance of agricultural research. But to stay competitive, we need AFRI to be fully funded. As the next Farm Bill gets written and debated, how to fund more research is a question that has to be answered. Our agriculture sector—an economic pillar for the heartland of our country—lies in the balance.”