Senate Farm Bill Recognizes Agricultural Research but Does Not Authorize New AFRI Funding While New USDA Report Shows US Falling Behind Other High-Income Countries

Research Spending Is Connected Directly to Agricultural Output; Private Sector Investments Cannot Compensate for Public Sector Shortfalls

WASHINGTON (June 8, 2018) —The Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill was introduced today with no increase in the authorization for the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program. Overall, this program, which sets the standard for scientific innovation in this field, has not seen major changes since 2008.

“The Senate Farm Bill provides a number of key adjustments in how agricultural research is funded—but so much more money is needed,” said Thomas Grumbly, President of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation. 

“Hemmed in by rising interest rates, lower commodity prices, and increasingly unstable weather patterns, farmers need scientific innovations to increase productivity. Increased investments will yield dividends for a generation of families; status quo leaves farmers and their fields increasingly underwater,” said Grumbly.

Grumbly pointed to a number of positive outcomes in the Senate bill text:

  • Permanent funding for several USDA competitive grant programs currently receiving direct mandatory Farm Bill funding;
  • Renewal of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research;
  • Generation of additional competition by removing the across the board matching-grant requirement for National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) competitive programs;
  • Adjusting the bill language related to staffing for the Office of the Chief Scientist; and
  • Opening the door to greater international collaboration in areas of US national interest, such as combating pest and diseases.

The Senate bill was released two weeks after the USDA issued an analysis of 31 high-income countries finding that government spending on agricultural research in these nations declined 1.5% annually since peaking in 2009. The study revealed that while the US still leads this group of countries, its share of total spending declined since 1960 from 35% to 25%.

The report also found that public agricultural research investments correlate directly with agricultural productivity and that the value of productivity improvements generated by R&D results were at least ten times more than the cost of the R&D. While larger countries like the US that invest more in R&D tend to receive greater impact, countries like the Netherlands achieved substantially more productivity growth than other midsized producers like New Zealand and Ireland because the Dutch government invested significantly more in agricultural R&D.

“Private-funded agricultural research cannot make up the difference,” noted Grumbly. The USDA report noted that while private sector investments in agricultural R&D increasing from $9.7 billion in 1980 to $31.2 billion in 2011, productivity still declined.

The Farm Bill sets the priorities and scope of the USDA every five years. In the 2008 Farm Bill, the USDA’s research programs were reorganized and AFRI was established as a new program to award grants through a competitive, peer-reviewed process. But the reorganization did not result in significant amounts of new funding. Though public investment in other forms of domestic research has increased, the U.S. agricultural research budget has declined in real dollars since 2003 and the Chinese government now leads the world in agricultural research investments.

In October, 2017, a broad coalition of 66 organizations called for the agency’s entire research, education, and extension budget to be doubled to $6 billion in the 2018 Farm Bill. Commodity groups, universities, advocacy organizations, and scientific societies all joined this call, which also pushed for significant changes to how the federal government invested in the agricultural sciences.

“All of the evidence from spreadsheets to farm fields points to one thing,” concluded Grumbly. “Our country needs to double down on its agricultural research investments.”

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