Consumers in the US have had a difficult year, to put it mildly. Prices have risen significantly for almost everything, and increasing costs of food have hit consumers particularly hard. Staple products including eggs, butter, meat, and vegetables have all jumped in price over the past 12 months, spurring an increasing number of Americans to turn to food banks to feed their families. 

In recent months, overall US inflation has begun to ease, but food prices have remained stubbornly high. Economists are now warning of “sticky inflation,” meaning that costs may stay elevated for an extended period. The war in Ukraine, supply chain issues stemming from COVID-19, labor challenges, and extreme weather events linked to climate change are all to blame for rising prices. A major outbreak of avian influenza further stressed US egg and poultry supplies, temporarily pushing prices for those products even higher. 

For decades, the US has been fortunate when it comes to food and agriculture. American farmers are among the most productive in the world, and our food supply chain has consistently delivered safe, abundant, and, most of all, affordable supplies to consumers. But challenges in the past year have exposed cracks in the system. To keep increasing production and ensure prices remain affordable for consumers, the food and agriculture sector must invest more in innovation. Unfortunately, US spending on agricultural research and development (R&D) has slipped in recent years in real terms – a fact that imperils us all.

Agricultural R&D is vital to our food system for many reasons. New scientific innovations can help increase crop production and farm efficiency – allowing farmers to harvest more food with fewer resources such as fuel, fertilizer, and water. Research can also uncover new ways to stop pest and disease outbreaks like avian influenza, address supply chain and labor challenges, and enable farmers to grow crops under increasingly volatile conditions due to climate change. Research can also help improve the nutritional content of foods, which is under threat from climate change. 

Importantly, the US needs investment in agricultural research from both the public and private sectors. Private agribusinesses tend to focus R&D spending on only a few large crop markets – such as corn and soybeans – leaving other smaller but vitally important areas like wheat, rice, and nutritious fruits and vegetables comparatively underexplored. Public-sector research spending, which often supports research at universities and international research organizations like CGIAR, can help fill this gap. Public-sector research also benefits society broadly by exploring areas including food safety, animal health, environmental issues, water resources, and increasing crop yields in developing countries to fight global hunger and malnutrition.  

Due to its range of benefits, agricultural research has an extremely high return on investment – one recent US Department of Agriculture (USDA) study showed $20 in benefits to the economy for every $1 spent. Yet in recent years, this area has suffered from an extreme lack of investment. Since 1995, agricultural research funding from within federal and state governments has declined in real terms, from about $6.5 billion down to $5.2 billion as of 2019, a drop of 20 percent in 2019 dollars. During the same period, inflation-adjusted public sector spending in all research areas in the US increased by almost 150 percent. While the U.S. has become complacent about its technical advantage, China and Brazil have scaled up public sector spending on agricultural research, threatening US agriculture’s competitive edge. 

Now, the US has a timely opportunity to reverse this dangerous trend. Congress is currently discussing the next Farm Bill, which comes up for reauthorization every five years. There are a number of ways that Congress could support agricultural R&D in this legislation, which my organization, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, recently outlined in a new report produced jointly with Farm Journal Foundation. 

One solution could be to increase funding for agricultural research at USDA agencies in regular, yearly intervals, an idea also put forward by the proposed America Grows Act, which we expect to be reintroduced this year. This incremental approach was successful in increasing long-term funding for the National Institutes of Health, and it could be duplicated for agriculture.  

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In addition, Congress could expand funding for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a public-private partnership first established under the 2014 Farm Bill. FFAR is required to match public funds with outside investments, often from the private sector. Since its inception, FFAR has matched every dollar of federal support with an average $1.40 in non-federal funding – making it a highly efficient use of taxpayer money that has generated significant new funds for innovation. In addition to expanding FFAR funding, Congress could broaden its mandate to make it the premier public-private partnership for agricultural research across the federal government, encouraging agencies such as the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and others to take advantage of its matching model to increase R&D investments that relate to agriculture.  

This past year has shown just how vulnerable our food system is to shocks, and farmers and consumers are paying the ultimate price. To protect our food supplies, national security, farming livelihoods, and economic growth, we must do more to support agricultural innovation. With the upcoming Farm Bill, Congress has a golden opportunity to invest in the future of the US food and agriculture sector, and ensure that consumers have access to safe and affordable food for generations to come.  

Dan Glickman is a former US Agriculture Secretary and member of Congress from Kansas. He serves as a distinguished fellow for the Center on Global Food and Agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and as a board member for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. 

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