Congress is under pressure to finally put a significant amount of farm bill funding toward reversing a decades-long decline in public research funding that has seen facilities decay even as universities and companies struggle to find new scientists.

Congress has long funded ag research largely through annual appropriations to USDA rather than mandating funding through farm bills. One notable exception is the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which was designed to rely primarily on nonfederal funding sources. FFAR received $200 million in seed money in the 2014 farm bill and another $185 million in the 2018 farm bill.

This year, a wide array of farm and research groups seeking to ramp up federal research funding are asking Congress for $8 billion in farm bill funding. In a March 6 letter to the House and Senate Ag committees, the groups said U.S. food security is at stake and that China now spends twice what the United States does. 

Karl Anderson, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation, said the industry has never asked for mandatory funding before and that it's time to do something different, given that public spending on ag research has declined by 30% over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the number of scientists in public food and agriculture research has fallen from 8,500 to 6,000.

KarlAnderson_SoAR_AgandFoodPolicySummit_2023.jpgKarl Anderson, Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation“We've all been saying for quite a while that we need to double ag research, and we haven't accomplished that goal. And so I think we've reached a point where I think many of us who signed that letter and are working on this issue, believe that it's mission-critical,” Anderson said, speaking during a panel discussion at this week's annual Agri-Pulse Ag and Food Policy Summit.

The request comes as the House and Senate Ag committees are grappling with a broad range of appeals for funding, including from farm groups that want commodity program reference prices increased.

In an interview for the Agri-Pulse summit, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., wouldn’t commit to mandating new funding for ag research in the farm bill.

But Thompson said he wanted to ensure the bill would serve farmers beyond its five-year effective period. He specifically cited the need for automation to relieve ag labor shortages. “We have workforce issues (and) some of that can be offset by the development of innovation, technology," he said. 

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance is proposing the creation of two new programs aimed at speeding the automation of growing and harvesting of fruits, vegetables, and other commodities.

The bulk of federal ag research spending is devoted to two USDA agencies: the Agricultural Research Service, the department’s in-house research arm, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds research facilities and projects at colleges and universities. 

President Joe Biden's budget proposes about $2 billion for ARS in fiscal 2024, up from $1.9 billion for FY23. NIFA would get $1.9 billion under the president’s FY24 budget, an increase from $1.72 billion for the current budget year.

Those kinds of increases are nowhere near large enough to address the challenges facing the ag sector, according to industry leaders. Further complicating matters, House GOP leaders are under heavy pressure from right-wing members to slash domestic discretionary spending, the funding subject to annual appropriations bills on which ag research heavily depends.

Andy LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association, is worried that the decline in the number of scientists is going to continue without a significant increase in research funding. Many of the 6,000 researchers now in the sector are nearing retirement even as colleges and universities struggle to attract new students in the field.

He asked rhetorically, “What’s that number going to look like in five years or 10 years, if we don’t make the investment today?” 

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He said the poor state of university research facilities has a lot to do with the struggle to recruit new scientists.

“You go into the facilities, and the labs still look like they did in the '60s and '70s,” said LaVigne. He argues, for example, that a seed company’s state-of-the-art research facility is much more attractive to graduates than a university-run research facility.

WendyFink_APLU_AgandFoodPolicySummit_2023.jpgWendy Fink, APLU Wendy Fink, associate vice president for food, agriculture and natural resources at the Association for Public and Land-Grant Universities, said the poor condition of ag research facilities also discourages new university students from even going into the field.

At Funchess Hall, a 62-year-old research lab at Auburn University known colloquially by students and faculty as “Fungus Hall,” daily temperature fluctuations are so severe they interfere with scientific instrumentation. This is typical of many such facilities across the country, she said.

She said 69% of the country's ag research, teaching and extension facilities “are at the end of their life cycle. In other words, they are at or near failure.” Renovating them would cost $11.5 billion; replacing them would cost $38 billion.

Providing universities with research dollars through the farm bill, rather than relying on annual appropriations bills, would also provide needed consistency in funding, said Zink. For example, it would allow researchers to hold off applying for a research grant until their proposal is better developed if they knew the funding would still be available, she said.

There are other concerns facing ag research as well. Wayne Watkinson, whose DC-based firm represents checkoff programs, said there is a need for better coordination in research. About 20% of checkoff revenue goes toward research, product development and related needs, he said.

“You can have state programs and federal programs spending dollars on the same (topics), just at different universities,” he said.

He said USDA and Congress should be involved in coordinating that ag research. “We've got to get some mandatory dollars, and we have to coordinate how those dollars will be spent,” he said.

Noah Wicks contributed to this report.

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