The USDA proposal to relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) out of the nation’s capital and to realign the ERS to report to the office of the chief economist rather than to the Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE) has created an unfortunate conflict between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the agricultural research community.  While I am a retiree and speak only for myself, this is a fight that need not and should not be.  

Agricultural research is far too important to be the subject of conflict between the secretary of agriculture and the agricultural research community.  We have enough challenges without expending any energy on this fight. Indeed, for the past 132 years, the secretary of agriculture and the agricultural research community have, for the most part, been on the same page.

I have been engaged in the land-grant university community for well over half a century, and serving in several different capacities including as a student at two universities and as a professor and administrator at two other land-grant universities, chair of the APLU Board on Agriculture, and the Chief Scientist and Undersecretary for REE in the USDA. I personally know many of the individuals involved in the agricultural research and education effort across the country. This group is an honorable, dedicated, hard-working group of individuals who are committed to improving agriculture.

Likewise, I’ve known the secretary for many years.  In Georgia, he has long been recognized as an outstanding agribusiness man.  Also, he has been a State Senator and, of course, Governor of the state of Georgia.  I got to know him much better when I became Dean of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia. Senator, then Governor, Perdue was always very supportive of the agricultural research, education, and extension programs that I had responsibility for. I have a deep respect for the secretary and his commitment to American agriculture.

Supporters of the Secretary’s plans have sought to dismiss our community’s opposition as antipathy to change. The agricultural community does not resist change.  Indeed, this community is an agent for change. We embrace change – if it fixes a real, clearly recognized problem or makes the system better.

Our agricultural research system needs to be reenergized, as indicated in my recently published book, “Feeding the World:  Agricultural Research of the Twenty-first Century.” I offer several ideas for improvement, but the most important point made in the book is the need for an in-depth, comprehensive review and study of our agriculture research system. Included in such a study would be representation from all aspects of the agricultural research effort. This includes researchers, users of research, as well as representation of administration structure that support research.

Consequently, it seems to me, it is time for a timeout and for everyone to engage and embrace a new direction and a different strategy.  

I propose that USDA and the agricultural research community come together under the leadership of the Secretary of Agriculture and the President of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities to form a joint commission to plot a course for agriculture research in this country. Such an effort could truly be a legacy for the Secretary. This would turn what is now a problem into a golden opportunity.

I believe the entire agricultural research community would strongly embrace such an idea. There are many issues that a comprehensive study should embrace.  As only a place to start, I include several possible items in my book. Certainly, with a distinguished panel of agricultural leaders from all sectors of agriculture, other areas could and should be identified. The beneficiary of such a study would be a better, more effective agricultural research system that is so vital for the future of our country and indeed, the world.  

Such an approach has proved productive and transformational in the past. In 1969, for example, Agriculture Secretary Cliff Hardin asked the National Academy of Sciences to study agricultural research programs supported by federal funds. The resulting 1972 “Pound Report” included several controversial findings — e.g., duplication of effort and excessive emphasis on applied research — but ultimately improved the agricultural research effort. 

The intent of my proposal is to stop fighting and work together to make the system be all that it can be. Of course, such a collaboration can only begin if the threat to ERS and NIFA is removed. 

Gale Buchanan was USDA Chief Scientist and Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics under President George W. Bush and dean of agriculture at the University of Georgia. A resident of Adel, Georgia, he has published two books recently: “Feeding the World: Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century” (2018) and “Branch Research Stations in Agriculture: History, Development, Operation, and Future” (2019).