05.18.2017

AgriPulse Op-Ed: Farmers Need a Flood of Research

(Published on AgriPulse)

By Thomas Grumbly

In California, five years of record-breaking drought have given way to a record-breaking winter of rain and snow that has provided farmers more water than they know what to do with. Southern Africa has had a similar experience, with record drought followed by torrential rains and floods. This change has also been accompanied by the rapid expansion of a new invasive pest—the fall armyworm.

The armyworms came to Southern Africa, where they devoured more than 700,000 acres of crops, from the Americas. Every year Brazil spends an estimated US$600 million to contain the pest. Efforts in the US to develop plants that repel the armyworm have  thus far yielded only mixed results.

And so it goes with agriculture around the world. Problems develop in one region and then crop up somewhere else; solutions develop in the original place but take too long to travel to where they are needed. In the US, annual losses just from invasive plant pests and diseases amount to approximately $40 billion, and the answers to these problems are rarely simple and easy to implement.

As agriculture and its problems continue to evolve, the science that helps farmers solve their problems has to evolve as well. Governments around the world need to dedicate funding to research that not only addresses today’s farming troubles but heads off tomorrow’s troubles as well.

China has embraced this challenge. Between 1990 and 2013, the Chinese government’s investment in food and agricultural research increased eightfold, exceeding US federal investment in 2008. When China’s research surge began in 1990, the U.S accounted for one out of every five dollars invested in ag research around the globe. In 2013, the U.S accounted for little more than one out of every eight dollars. Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) research budget has risen less than 1 percent.

You can see the problem in the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the USDA’s flagship program for competitively awarded research grants. The program was launched in the 2008 Farm Bill, which authorized the program’s budget at $700 million. Yet budget politics every year prevent the program from hitting that level. Its first-year budget was only $200 million and, while the program’s funding has grown most years since its inception, its current fiscal year budget is only $375 million.

With such a ceiling on funding, the program has had to spread its funding too widely, which leads to a lack of resources as diseases evolve. The blast fungus, for example, has been a problem in southern US rice fields for decades. Every year it destroys enough rice around the world to feed 60 million people. Whenever researchers identify a new gene that helps the rice plant resist infestations, the fungus develops ways to overcome that resistance.

In 1985, the blast fungus emerged in wheat fields in Brazil and has plagued wheat farmers in South America since. Last year the fungus appeared in fields in Bangladesh. This year it appeared in eastern India where farmers had no recourse but to burn more than 25,000 acres of cropland to prevent its spread.

Wheat blast is genetically different from rice blast and the pathways for its genetic resistance are also different—only one resistance gene has been found in wheat so far by a team led by Barbara Valent, PhD, a scientist at Kansas State University.

Dr. Valent has used three AFRI grants to develop tools to help stop blast from spreading in both rice and wheat fields and to forecast when and where it might emerge next—but no one has solved the blast fungus crisis for good. And Dr. Valent’s final AFRI grant ends at the end of 2017 with no new source of funding in sight.

AFRI’s limited funding has had some great successes. Fifteen percent of U.S. wheat fields have been planted with varieties that AFRI grants produced. Other projects receiving funding have found ways to remove most of the allergens from peanuts and organize corn fields to minimize loss of fertilizer and topsoil during hard rains.

As beneficial as it is that rising economic powers like China embrace the need for more agricultural research, it is critically important that the US matches this surge of science. The US was once the leader in agricultural production, exports, and the science that made everything possible, but funding has dried up faster than California’s groundwater. The difference is, no one is forecasting a flood of new funding anytime soon.

With population forecasts pointing to increased demand for food around the globe and farmers facing a raft of problems just to maintain current production levels, it is time for the U.S. to reassert its leadership in the food and agricultural sciences. The upcoming budget for fiscal year 2018, as well as the 2018 Farm Bill, present Congress with perfect opportunities to do so. Federal investment in research is the key that will unlock solutions; it’s time to open the floodgates.

About the author:Thomas Grumbly serves as president of Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation. He has held senior policy roles in the Office of Management and Budget, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.

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