Agriculture in need of more scientific innovation

Cattle ranches and their cowboys used to be economic anchors for our nation’s growth across North America. And they remain a way of life for much of the High Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. But today, even with cattle and beef supplies increasing over the past five years, the rising price of even the most inexpensive beef products — such as hamburger meat — leaves consumers searching for more economical sources of protein.

Since 2000, the price of hamburger meat has increased at a rate more than twice that of consumer inflation. And the havoc brought by recent weather calamities in the Midwestern U.S. exacerbates current business challenges and could raise prices by as much as 50 cents a pound more.

The cattle industry is also facing the challenge of diseases like Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD), which most consumers never heard of. A combination of viral and bacterial infections that is made worse with the stress of modern production methods, BRD costs the industry almost $700 million every year. USDA estimates that BRD infects more than one out of every five beef cattle in feedlots, the intensive operations that hold cattle before being transported to the slaughterhouse.

Corn farmers are another stark example. They face new pests, catastrophic floods and unstable markets. Pig farmers must confront their own set of virulent diseases, unstable feed prices, antiquated solutions for managing the manure produced by their operations, and competition from alternative protein sources. Even growers of romaine lettuce have troubles, with consumer confidence in their products at a low point given the two recent food safety scares.

BRD, and the problems that everyone in agriculture faces, can be solved by scientific research and innovation. But the breakneck rise of consumer prices hasn’t been matched by government investment in agricultural research. In 1940, almost 40 percent  of the federal investment in research and development was dedicated to the agricultural sciences. Today, U.S. agricultural research funding represents less than 2 percent of the total.

The agriculture sector is critical to the overall U.S. economy, accounting for nearly $1 trillion of our gross domestic product (GDP) and one in 10 jobs. Agricultural research and development funding has an estimated return on investment of 20 to 1. But the federal government’s support for the scientific innovation needed by this sector has run dry, and our farmers have lost too much ground to overseas competitors.

The value of China’s total agricultural production, for example, is more than double what ours is, and while their prodigious yields are produced on half the farmland, Chinese farmers use four times the amount of pesticide and almost seven times the amount of fertilizer compared to their U.S. counterparts. To fix these imbalances and keep improving the sector, today China invests nearly twice as much as the US in the agricultural science, while U.S. investments barely keep pace with inflation.

The recent budget proposal from the White House makes a nod towards these problems in its requested 20 percent increase for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Through its 11-year history, the USDA’s flagship research grants program has never received the full $700 million budget that Congress authorized. Instead the AFRI program started at one-third of this amount, and only received incremental adjustments since.

So, the 20 percent boost — moving the program’s budget to $500 million — would be historic. With its proposal, the Trump administration joins the Obama administration in trying to expand this program substantially.

But even those increases would not be enough. AFRI already stretches its funding as far as it can, and its grantees patch together funding from additional sources to pursue ambitious developments. James Womack, for example, is a Texas A&M scientist working with colleagues to find genetic markers of disease resistance in cattle. Womack blends AFRI funding with resources from his institution in his search for ways to improve breeding programs so that farmers can work with healthy stock.

Womack’s grant is an exception, however, and not the rule. AFRI can only afford to fund one-quarter of the best proposals, scored through a competitive, peer-review process. While the proposed budget boost will help, we are not even close to closing this gap — and AFRI’s increase stands out in comparison to the proposed cuts in other agriculture science programs as well as to the entire USDA budget. Congress is expected to roll back many of these cuts, but no one expects the decline in agricultural research funding to be fixed in this budget cycle. Much more is needed.

The agriculture sector for a long time was a central factor in the American economy and quality of life, but it’s now struggling just to keep up. Farmers and ranchers can once again become the iconic image of this country’s growth, but only if the federal government invests in the science needed to drive its growth.

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