The U.S. food and agriculture sectors are key contributors to our economy. A 2021 study shows that these sectors account for roughly one-fifth of the country’s economic activity, directly supporting nearly 20 million jobs and constituting 13% of U.S. employment. Almost 41 million jobs are indirectly supported by the food and agriculture sectors, with total output reaching $7 trillion.

This success is built on a strong foundation of agriculture research and development (R&D) investments over much of the last century. A recent study found that U.S. public food and agriculture R&D spending from 1910 to 2007 returned, on average, $17 in benefits for every $1 invested. Increasing agricultural R&D funding, both in-house at USDA and through external collaborative agriculture research and capacity-building at universities like the University of Nebraska and the University of Wisconsin, will give our farmers, ranchers, producers, and foresters the tools they need to improve resiliency and scale up climate-smart agriculture. Without significant investments in climate-smart agriculture research and outreach, U.S. farmers could face serious production challenges with rural communities suffering from stagnant growth. A recent study in the journal Climate found that average U.S. corn, soybean, and rice yields could fall by up to 23%, 15%, and 4%, respectively, by 2100.

The federal share of overall R&D spending as a percentage of GDP is now at its lowest point since the 1950s. Food and agriculture lags even further behind most other federal R&D areas: USDA food and agricultural R&D funding has remained fairly flat over the last 50 years.  Additionally, other countries, including China, Brazil, and India, are investing heavily in agricultural R&D, while the U.S. has fallen behind. Significant investments are needed to win the R&D race and keep our family farms and rural America in business.

The House Appropriations Committee recently passed its FY 2022 USDA funding bill, which is expected to be considered by the full House of Representatives this month. This bill would provide $3.391 billion for USDA’s R&D programs. If enacted, the funding increase would be 10.46%, or $321 million above the FY 2021 enacted level for USDA’s Research, Education, Economics, and Extension programs, a good start to correcting the flat funding trend. Similarly, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee has prioritized investments in agricultural research, with one example being USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). This program also needs to be funded at the highest level possible. AFRI’s competitively awarded research grants make sure that scarce dollars fund the best research, sparking the innovation so desperately needed by our farmers, ranchers, producers, and foresters in the face of climate change and future challenges. We look forward to the Senate continuing its commitment to robustly fund agriculture research.

We urge the Senate to fund these programs at robust levels, meeting or exceeding the funding levels passed by the House Appropriations Committee. Additionally, significant investments in food and agriculture research, innovation, and infrastructure should be included in whatever infrastructure package moves forward. Major new investments in food and agriculture R&D are crucial for the United States to reclaim our global lead in food and agricultural science, provide the food we need, and contribute to global food security.

Dr. Ronnie D. Green is the Chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and former Vice Chancellor of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. In addition to leadership in higher education, he is an internationally recognized leader in animal genetics and genomics and has held executive leadership roles in government, private industry and academia. 

Rebecca Blank has been chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2013. She is an internationally respected economist who has held senior roles in Washington, D.C. under three different administrations.

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