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Economy & Business

New day announced for agriculture research

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2009 -  St. Louisan Dr. Roger Beachy was introduced Thursday as the first director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and handed a broad mandate to make the U.S. a world leader in agricultural research.

When he introduced Beachy at the National Press Club in Washington, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined a series of ambitious policy goals for the nnew research agency including:

  • Keeping American agriculture competitive while ending world hunger by developing drought- and stress-resistant crops
  • Improving nutrition and ending child obesity
  • Improving food safety
  • Developing plants that help to ensure the country’s energy independence
  • Improving stewardship of natural resources and developing sustainable agriculture.

Last month, President Barack Obama tapped Beachy, the founding director of the St. Louis-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, to lead NIFA, which was created in the 2008 Farm Bill.
He assumes control over the Agriculture Department’s vast research efforts, but with the special charge of introducing a peer-review process that will ensure high-quality, leading-edge research into the ways plants and animals can be used to help fight global climate change and benefit the human race.

Answering a question from the audience, Beachy said he hopes to counter a declining number of Agriculture Depatment researchers by making research challenging and funding projects that stimulate interest among top-flight scientists.

Also attending the NIFA roll-out were senior officials from the departments of State and Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

The point of such a broad array of senior officials, who might be inclined to guard their own turf when research projects are developed, was to emphasize the unified way in which the Obama White House wants to meet the broad array of global challenges in food, energy, climate change and sustainability.

NIFA will assume the budget of the former Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service , a research-funding agency in the department that it supersedes. That agency was created in 1994.

While federal agricultural research is not new, enthusiasm for the new institute is prompted by hopes that the way the funds are allocated will change.

YEARS OF PREPARATION

Dr. William H. Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University, has long pushed for a greater national focus on plant and food research and saw Thursday's presentation as a moment of great satisfaction. 

"The basic idea has been enacted into law," he said in an interview Tuesday. "And the administration has adopted this as a priority. I am enthusiastic about it, but it will only be as good as its implementation."

Danforth emphasized that he could not say exactly what research should be conducted or on what kinds of plants or foods. He has been more concerned about adding a scientific discipline to the process of awarding and supervising research grants.

Agriculture research grants are known to be subject to political influence as powerful members of Congress try to direct which universities and institutions receive them, sometimes to study pet projects that benefit some of their constituents.

PEER REVIEW

Yet Danforth long has believed that government-sponsored research on food and fiber should be held to the same rigorous standard as that funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

"My idea is to improve the way decisions are made," he said. "We ought to be able to have good research."

The payoff, he said, will be a higher level of understanding about our food supply, how to meet the challenges of feeding a global population that is expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050 and how to improve food safety, among other things. Well-directed and managed research will lead to solutions of many food-related problems that may seem daunting today.

"I view research as a very practical sort of thing," Danforth said. "Research is just the way of human beings.

"If you're worried about food safety, then research will help you know more. We need to know more about agriculture. We won't learn it without research."

Earlier this decade, Danforth led a commission that laid the intellectual groundwork for NIFA by studying various federally supported agricultural research programs.

The commission, which issued its report in 2004, noted that in 2002 only 8.5 percent of the agriculture department's research budget was awarded in a peer-review basis. The same year at NIH, by comparison, 85 percent of research grants went the peer-review route.

As Danforth saw it, that was clear evidence that research grants were not being awarded on a basis that would best benefit the most Americans - as well as millions of others around the world.

A SUBSTANTIAL REFOCUSING

In 2008, Congress passed the farm bill that established NIFA with the mission of targeting and funding first-class research across a broad spectrum of agriculture endeavors.

While some may wonder if this is simply pouring old wine into new bottles, Danforth sees this bureaucratic reshuffling as a substantive refocusing of the federal government's attention on agriculture research.

Observers say much will depend upon the attention and support that the Obama administration gives the newly named and reconfigured research agency, as well as the ability of Beachy and his staff to work with powerful members of the House and Senate who sometimes jealously guard their prerogatives as committee and subcommittee chairmen overseeing agriculture.

Asked if U.S. agriculture research has fallen behind that of other countries, such as China, Brazil, India, Germany and other members of the European Union, Danforth said that China is conducting excellent research on drought-resistant crops, as well as other aspects of agriculture.

"We have had great agriculture research in the past that has created enormous benefits to the world," he said. "Norman Borlaug is an example. But we have not kept up with the advances in science."

Repps Hudson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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