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Economy & Business

Farm bill breaks new ground in agriculture research

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 5, 2008 - After years of delay, Congress has finally targeted ground-breaking research in food and fiber in the new five-year farm bill. But the real test will come, possibly later this year, when Congress has the opportunity to set aside money to create a National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

The farm bill, passed last month over President George W. Bush's veto, has received blistering bad press from critics who called it bloated and overly generous to wealthy farmers. But Dr. William Danforth, Washington University's former chancellor who still has an office on campus, said he was "very pleased" with at least one provision -- Title VII . That section authorizes establishing a National Institute for Food and Agriculture to solicit and fund ground-breaking research across a spectrum of agriculture issues.

"What was missing was the ability to do fundamental research that is technical and needs scientific input. The great advances in the future will come in this way," Danforth said.

Innovation and Peer Review

Four years ago, Danforth led a task force to look at ways to improve agriculture research. The task force found, for instance, that in 2002 only 8.5 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research budget was awarded on a peer-review basis, a figure that Rob Hedberg, the department's acting director of legislative affairs, said is still accurate.

Over the years, said Danforth, some of the best break-through research and applications have been generated by competitive, peer-reviewed projects funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. It's no accident that that the Danforth task force found that in 2002 about 85 percent of the National Institutes of Health research budget and about 90 percent of the National Science Foundation's research budget were distributed on a competitive basis. Competitive and peer-reviewed research grants are relatively free of political influence, where money might be earmarked for pet projects of members of Congress or a presidential administration.

Danforth wants to see this aspect of the Agriculture Department's research budget grow as a way to keep American agriculture on the leading edge of food and fiber production. Congress and the department must realize, said Danforth, that research on seeds -- their various potential as sources for food and other materials, their resistance to drought and pests -- is a long-term project that should attract the best minds in the scientific community.

Innovation is crucial for American agriculture to compete in the global marketplace, the report says, yet the private sector -- seed and chemical companies, for instance -- cannot be relied upon to come up with the kind of break-throughs necessary for positioning agriculture for the 21st century.

"(M)any of the important innovations of the future -- those that are totally new, those that resolve long-standing problems, and those that represent significant breakthroughs -- will come from a deepening understanding of how plants and animals reproduce, grow, and mature; how they produce nutrients; how they protect themselves against pest and diseases; how they utilize water, minerals, and nitrogen from the soil; how they interact with the environment, and how they can be beneficially modified," the report states.

Farm bill's research budget

Currently, the Agriculture Department spends roughly $2.5 billion a year on various kinds of research, spread across several agencies and distributed to the states, Hedberg said.

All told, the new farm bill directs that $50 million to $70 million be spent for competitive research grants on specialty crops and organic crops for the five years covered by the authorization bill. To award that money, however, Congress must pass an appropriations bill that directs the actual spending of federal funds.

The farm bill's allocation for competitive research grants is still considerably less than what the Danforth task force recommended -- $225 million a year, broken into 1,000 competitive research grants with an average size of $225,000  each. 

The department now distributes much of its research money through land-grant colleges and universities, which run the department's extension service throughout the United States. These programs offer practical help to farmers and are credited with ensuring that practical applications of research, which may be specific to certain areas, climates and soil conditions, get to producers quickly.

Those who oversee and benefit from research funds allocated to such programs as the extension service are concerned that Congress will take money from that pot to put into competitive research under the new National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

"A competitive grants program can't react fast enough" to many problems that may arise in agriculture, said Marc Linit, associate dean for research and extension at the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

An example, Linit said, was the spread of Asian soybean rust several years ago. The disease, carried in spores by winds from South America, threatened the soybean crop in several Southern states and even showed up in southeastern Missouri. By tapping department funds allocated to states affected by the fungus, Linit said, the extension service could provide a quick response by holding classes for farmers, tracking the spread of the fungus and directing field tests and other research.

"In my opinion, it's not an either-or situation," Linit said. "We need the ability to respond quickly so we can meet the needs of local producers." He added that the need for long-horizon research, as Danforth has stated, is also pressing.

Raising the profile of Ag research

Long-term, competitive agriculture research is not yet held in high regard in the scientific research community, Linit said. If Congress were to set aside money to raise the profile of competitive ag research, that would be beneficial.

Hedberg noted that the new National Institute for Food and Agriculture will have to receive a first-time appropriation from Congress before it can begin. Studies dating to 1972 have recommended similar changes in ag research, but as the Danforth task force noted, "history warns that the necessary changes will not be easy. Competitive, merit-review grants open to all have not fared well in the agriculture appropriations subcommittees."

Danforth acknowledged that the politics of awarding research money will be difficult to change, since chairmen and ranking members of appropriations subcommittees have considerable power to earmark funds. But they also have the power now to fund the advances of the future.

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