Congress perennially recognizes the long-term payoff from agricultural research but repeatedly fails to adequately fund the work in the near term, said former Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.
During a panel discussion on the future of global agriculture, she put ag research at the top of her list of issues that need attention.
“I don’t know how we do it without a really significant investment in research,” said Merrigan, now head of Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University.
“I have heard everyone, in every farm bill cycle, talk about how we need to do more for research. But then when it’s time for the bill to be written, for the dollars to be allocated, the money’s not there.”
China spends twice as much, more than $10 billion a year, as the third-place United States in public funding of ag research. The European Union was second with outlays of around $8 billion.
At the turn of the decade, India and Brazil were ramping up ag research programs while U.S. spending stagnated at around $5 billion annually.
Adjusted for inflation, public funding for agricultural research and development has fallen by one-third since its peak in 2002.
The federal government provides two-thirds of the funding, including grants to colleges and researchers, who perform 70 percent of the work.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) analysts claim each $1 in research generates $20 in benefits to the U.S. economy.
The new farm bill should tackle issues including assuring equity in USDA programs, factoring environmental impacts into the “true cost” of food, and reaching consensus on a definition of regenerative agriculture to assure conservation funds are spent correctly, said Merrigan.
“There’s no magic number” for sections of the farm bill or the topics it covers.
Ricardo Salvado of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said farm supports should be limited to food produced for human consumption, rather than crops that go to industrial use, such as making biofuels.