USDA makes case for ag research dollars

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, March 16, 2015 - The leaders of USDA's research agencies told lawmakers on the House Agriculture Appropriations panel Wednesday why federal investment in agricultural research is critical to protecting the national food system and supporting American producers.

In fiscal 2016, Congress approved the highest ever budget - $2.94 billion - for USDA ag research. The Obama administration's 2017 budget proposal asks for $38 million less in discretionary funds compared to last year, but is simultaneously proposing a series of increases: a $6 million increase for the Economic Research Service; an $8 million bump for the National Agricultural Statistics Service; $18 million more to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS); and an increase of $47 million for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

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To cut costs, the administration has proposed to end 14 research programs within NIFA - a move Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., questioned.

“We cannot allow new, untested programs to begin at the expense of proven, effective research programs” like NIFA's, Aderholt said, referring specifically to the administration's newly proposed Home Visits for Remote Areas Program, which he says would be duplicative of two existing Health and Human Services programs and another USDA program.

Aderholt also took issue with proposed mandatory and discretionary investments - $375 million and $325 million, respectively - in the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which was established by the 2008 farm bill as a NIFI-run competitive grants program to support research in plant and animal health, biofuels, food safety and more.

“This irresponsible budget gimmick artificially reduces the discretionary request for research and disregards the debt crisis facing our nation,” Aderholt said in his opening statement.

Cathie Woteki, USDA's chief scientist and under secretary of Research, Education and Economics, testified that the AFRI grant program is among the best ways USDA can “tap into” the “enormous amount of talent” found at agricultural research universities.

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She said the discretionary portion of the AFRI budget will be targeted toward developing, and ultimately commercializing, bioenergy and biofuels technologies, of which the Obama administration has been a strong proponent. On the mandatory side, the emphasis will be on grant projects that address problems in agriculture and food systems, such as antibiotic resistance and invasive pest control, she said.

The panel discussion also included references to avian influenza, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), citrus greening and ARS' animal research facilities:

  • ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young assured the committee that USDA is in a position to produce and distribute an avian flu vaccine that is able to protect against multiple strains of bird flu.
  • Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she didn't think the $5 million proposed in Obama's budget was sufficient to provide technical assistance to farmers around FSMA compliance. “It doesn't seem like enough to me,” she said. “It's so critical that people get the right start on this, that farmers have the opportunity to find out what is required and what isn't.”
  • Woteki acknowledged that research on citrus greening has been slow to reach growers. Fortunately, she said, NIFI grants have supported successful ag university research, field trials have been conducted in Florida and some potential remedies have been provided to growers through university extension.
  • Now that over a year has passed since USDA was criticized for its alleged mistreatment of cows, pigs and sheep at its U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in southern Nebraska, Woteki says a list of oversight policies have been put in place. ARS has entered into an agreement with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to conduct unannounced inspections of its animal research facilities and created a position to oversee animal treatment nationwide. ARS will continue to conduct audits in nine of its animal research facilities (15 of the 24 facilities ARS owns have already been audited), and will now require all of its employees in animal research to complete an online training, Jacobs-Young said.

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