Process Still Leaves USDA Underfunded as Other Subcommittees Have More Leeway; E Coli Outbreak from Romaine Lettuce is Only the Tip of the Iceberg in Food Safety Problems that Agricultural Research Needs to Solve
WASHINGTON, DC (May 17, 2018)—The Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee in the House of Representatives released the conference report for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget in FY19 today, proposing a $15M increase for the agency’s flagship competitive research program and a $72M increase for its entire research portfolio.
But while advocates highlight that the budget for Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) has increased by 10.7 percent in the past two federal budgets, they also note that the USDA budget has not kept pace with the growth seen in other agencies—providing rural America with the proverbial short end of the stick. It is difficult for appropriators to provide more agriculture research funding when the broader budget for agriculture increases by less than 1 percent. This compares to 3.5 percent for the Energy and Water Appropriations or nearly 5 percent for the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations.
“We are finally seeing momentum as Congress continues to increase AFRI’s budget,” said Thomas Grumbly, President of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation. “But the research budgets of other agencies are growing faster. The USDA has always been seen as serving rural America first and foremost—the past few budget deals still leave these communities on the outside, looking in.”
“The recent E Coli outbreak serves as a reminder of how, without new innovations, food production can explode into crisis,” Grumbly added. “We need new techniques to detect and track contaminated foods and we also need new methods to protect our food supply from contamination. The science that generates these breakthroughs comes from federally funded research—and without more research funding, the economic impact of these outbreaks will continue to hit farming communities first.”
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million people every year, sending 128,000 to the hospital and killing 3,000. Antibiotic resistance in these infections is a growing problem as many infections are not diagnosed with enough specificity for doctors to know which medicines would cure the infection and which ones would be ineffective.
AFRI is the USDA’s flagship research program. Its grants are awarded through a competitive peer-reviewed process, and the program’s funding have helped scientists develop new means of preventing and tracking foodborne illnesses, genetic resources for row crops and livestock, and new diagnostic methods for animal diseases.
While the FY 2019 budget increase—if passed by the full House and Senate and signed into law by the President—would bring the program budget to its highest level in its ten-year history, the program has never reached its 2008 Farm Bill authorized amount of $700 million. Because of this, AFRI has only had sufficient resources to fund one quarter of all the grants recommended by its peer-review process.
“Foodborne illness has been the target of agricultural invention since the invention of farming,” concluded Grumbly. “But we haven’t generated enough science to stomp out salmonella at the source. We urge Congress to embrace the quiet momentum of the last four years and respond to the needs of farmers and rural America. The safety of everyone’s dinner table depends on it.”