As Congress begins to craft the 2023 farm bill, the Agriculture Department's chief scientist said big investments are needed in infrastructure, workforce development and ways to make USDA research more digestible and usable to agricultural producers.
Chavonda Jacobs-Young, USDA's undersecretary for Research, Education and Environment (REE), told the Senate Ag Committee Tuesday that federal investment in agricultural research has declined by about one-third in the past two decades, falling behind other international competitors such as China and Brazil as well as private investments. Even with the drop in federal support, she said every $1 invested in ag research still offers a $20 return on investment.
Both Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., discussed the positive impact research can have to address agriculture challenges, as well as the need to remain competitive around the world.
“China has quintupled its investment in public agriculture research since 2000 and now invests twice as much as the U.S. does. As our farmers work to tackle the climate crisis, navigate constantly changing markets, and feed a growing global population, investments in agriculture research and trustworthy economic data will only become more important,” Stabenow said.
Boosting research funding has long been a shared priority of many farm groups and lawmakers, but securing more money — especially as recent bills have emphasized cost savings — has been difficult. The 2014 farm bill authorized the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which began with a $200 million investment to award money for projects that can receive matching funds through public-private partnerships. That program was reauthorized in the 2018 farm bill.
Jacobs-Young did not offer specifics on how Congress can improve the farm bill's research title but offered her own and the agency's expertise to Congress as it begins work on the next bill.
“I believe a few things are critical to ensuring REE’s mission stays on track — supporting workforce development efforts, deepening our existing partnerships to bridge the gap between researchers and producers, and increasing equity in research funding and program focus,” Jacobs-Young said.
Aside from funding, the country's existing ag research infrastructure is also lagging. According to Jacobs-Young, the average age of research buildings is 47 years old and many research scientists are “working in crumbling facilities.” The workers in those buildings are also getting older. Jacobs-Young said 20% of the REE’s workforce is currently eligible to retire; in three years, that number increases to 33% of the workforce.
Additional funds are needed to attract the next generation of workers, and she noted the $250 million announced recently by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to enable minority-serving institutions to create career development opportunities is helping. This competitive funding, made possible through funding provided in the American Rescue Plan Act as amended in the Inflation Reduction Act, is a “necessary down payment for attracting, inspiring and retaining diverse and talented students for careers in food and agriculture and careers at USDA,” she added.
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Alcorn State University President Felecia Nave, testifying on behalf of the 19 presidents and chancellors in the 1890 Council, said the new scholarship program has been helpful in “recruiting and preparing a diverse, talented new generation of agricultural scientists,” and asked lawmakers to make the program permanent. But facilities at the nation's HBCUs are “underfunded by billions of dollars” and are sorely in need of upgrade or repair.
USDA also wants to make sure research does not “stay in file cabinets,” Jacobs-Young noted, so additional employees and more partnerships with technical cooperatives and extension would be helpful to further disseminate information learned through USDA's research.
USDA’s climate hubs offer a way to take thousands of peer-reviewed papers and translate them into nuggets producers can use. Jacobs-Young also said most of the research focus is on small to mid-sized farms, and $24 million in grants are also available to technical cooperators on the ground to support producers.
Although the hearing was focused on research requests and needs, testifying on behalf of the American Seed Trade Association was Katy Martin Rainey, associate professor of agronomy at Purdue University and director of the Purdue Soybean Center. She said there are many exciting innovations available to farmers to meet global demands, but regulatory alignment is needed between USDA, Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. Innovations such as gene editing require policies in place for those products to reach the market, she added.
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