Agriculture research facilities at our nation’s land-grant universities — those institutions responsible for most of the agriculture teaching, research, innovation, and outreach to farmers, ranchers, and communities — are in dire need of upgrades and expansions, with many of the buildings at leading research universities dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. Space is inadequate, in disrepair, expensive to maintain, unattractive to future students, uncompelling to potential industry partners, and woefully inadequate for current, to say nothing of future, research activities. Relative to investments in facilities for teaching or research in engineering, physical sciences, life sciences, business, medicine, veterinary medicine, computing and data sciences, and allied health sciences, investments in agricultural sciences, and agriculture research more broadly, have lagged far behind. Agriculture teaching and research facilities at our nation’s public universities are facing an estimated $11.5 billion deferred maintenance obligation. This is a paralyzing figure and no doubt eclipses those in other disciplines in which regular and continuing investments in infrastructure have been made over the decades.

Most Americans, and even most academic researchers working in agriculture, likely do not fully understand the specifics of the Farm Bill and its multi-faceted 12 titles. The current bill invests billions of dollars a year to address food insecurity. The social good of such an investment is obvious. And the economic impact for farmers, growers, and ranchers is similarly clear, even if not as direct. Nevertheless, what’s missing in Title VII, Research and Related Matters, is the investment in our agricultural system – research and innovation, talent attraction and workforce development, and creating meaningful university-industry, and other public-private partnerships to achieve all of this and their ties to sustaining future food security. In other words, what’s missing is a comprehensive plan with funding for BUILDING THE FUTURE of our nation’s agricultural industries and workforce and SECURING both our nation’s food system and our global leadership in agriculture and food.

The Farm Bill was last updated in 2018. The bill authorized programs and spending for agriculture research but did not mandate the funding; that required subsequent action by Congress through the appropriations process. Concerningly, the Farm Bill does not fund infrastructure and deferred maintenance. The 2018 bill included a modest competitive grant program for capital projects, or facilities upgrades, but Congress did not provide any mandatory funding for it. The FY23 budget has allocated a mere $2 million for infrastructure improvement, effectively ignoring the $11 billion problem.

In April, APLU led an effort that was supported by 340 national, regional, and state agriculture, food, and forestry stakeholder groups requesting $5 billion in mandatory farm bill funding specifically to upgrade research facilities at land-grant universities – this investment will go a long way to improving our competitiveness in research and impact on the global food security challenge. Yet, even that amount is only 0.02% of the entire U.S. annual budget and only 0.004% of the annual U.S. gross domestic product.  According to the United State Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services reports, the current scale of the U.S. agriculture and food production GDP contributes to 5% of the total GDP.  Put into this context, an investment of $5 billion will have oversized impact on our national GDP and will contribute significantly to the GDP of traditional agriculture states like Kansas and Iowa, where the contributions of agriculture to state GDPs are 7% and 11%, respectively.

Our nation’s food and economic security depend on significant and sustained investments in our agriculture research facilities; as do our global standing, global reach, and global impact as a leader in food and agriculture. We must acknowledge, accept, and run toward a bright new future for the practice and profession of agriculture. And we must recognize that failure to invest is an existential threat to our nation’s agriculture economy, food system, innovation leadership, and economic prosperity of families, businesses, and communities. Food security is national security.

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U.S. agriculture can lead the world in solving the grand challenges in food, water, animal health, climate, and the environment. We can do this while creating jobs, preparing the new workforce, inventing new technologies, and launching entire industries. We can conduct research and development, work with our vast network of partners to demonstrate proofs-of-concepts and efficacies and become known for innovation and economic impact at levels historically associated only with big tech, big pharma, and more recently alternative energy. However, we can neither bring together these domains of expertise to find needed solutions and advance them into practice, nor create new knowledge, new technologies, new companies, or the talent needed to drive them without having state-of-the-art and safe facilities.

Our researchers and educators are ready. Our farmers and ranchers are ready. Our ag-related industries are ready. But our facilities are simply not up to the task. The classrooms and laboratories of the 1950s are neither adequate nor appropriate for this bold agenda and necessary leap forward. We must invest in the facilities of the 2050s. Today.

David Rosowsky is vice president for research at Kansas State University where he oversees research and economic development activity on the university’s three campuses in Manhattan, Salina, and Olathe.

Peter Dorhout is the vice president for research and professor of chemistry at Iowa State University and laboratory affiliate of the Ames National Laboratory. Dorhout leads the research office with oversight for research development, compliance, and strategic partnerships to advance the research agenda of Iowa State.

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