I am continuing to encourage folks to begin thinking about the 2018 Farm Bill.  It seems a long way off.  But now is the time to start considering how we want to modify and build farm programs for the future. 

Particularly apt in discussions of the future is agricultural research.  Where we put our money today—and as we develop the next farm bill—will have implications for decades to come.  We are facing a rapidly increasing world population and in a few short decades will need to pull out the stops to get food on the table, not just here in the U.S., but in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

How can we ramp up production to be part of the solution to meet the needs of hungry customers who will be looking to the U.S. not only for food supplies but leadership in finding ways to increase yields worldwide?  As I have said before, sustainable intensification is a critical piece of this puzzle.  So are genetically engineered crops, biological advancement and highly advanced informatics all designed to boost yields, increase environmental efficiency and develop animals that can quickly produce more meat and milk with lower inputs of feed and forage. 

Behind highly productive agriculture is a robust research program, and USDA has a major role to play in that effort through the research it conducts and fosters through grants to universities and other organizations.  I was especially pleased to see the Obama Administration include full funding of $700 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) competitive grants in its 2017 budget request.  This is the first time the full amount identified in the 2014 Farm Bill has appeared in the budget request since the bill was passed.  Of course, even as I hand out that compliment I have to couple it with a reminder that the President’s budget is dead on arrival and they missed the real opportunities to advance research over the past several years.  We can’t afford to let that happen in the future.

Under USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), AFRI grants focus on creating, translating, delivering new agricultural knowledge, particularly in foundational sciences but also in water usage, food safety, human nutrition, adaptation to climate change, natural resource and environmental stewardship, rural development and education and literacy. This is a competitive grant program open to governments, other organizations and individuals. 

NIFA’s primary research partners are land-grant universities, which operate Cooperative Extension Services and conduct research activities.  But NIFA also works with private sector business, other federal agencies, international organizations, nonprofit associations, committees, professional societies, commodity groups, grower associations, foundations, citizen groups, task forces and others to conduct research that will lead to a more productive agriculture.

It is time to conduct oversight hearings on how well these programs are doing.   Did the reforms in the past two farm bills help or hurt the advancement of agriculture research?   Why are the overhead charges for research programs so high?   Is the research that is being funded investing in the same old strategies or in new, potentially more productive ones?

In addition, the last farm bill created an exciting new research platform, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) which seeks to draw private funding to match the $200 million authorized in the farm bill to conduct additional research with priorities similar to AFRI.   Where have the dollars been invested?   What are the rules of the road for entities wishing to partner with FFAR?  How well is the Foundation doing in staffing up and building the protocols for managing these investments?  With a board composed primarily of researchers, how is it connecting to the needs of farmers and the food value chain?   I offer these questions not as criticism, but rather as the challenges that must be answered prior the next farm bill, if the foundation is to secure additional, much needed funds from taxpayers for agricultural research.   

In its last year, the Obama Administration has declared research and development, across government, to be a high priority.  As we move forward toward the next farm bill, we need to be certain that agricultural research receives the attention and emphasis it deserves from the leaders of the next Administration and Congress and that programs are designed to ensure that the money is well spent.  It’s particularly important to focus on supporting basic research that forms the foundation for private sector efforts to improve crops and livestock.  I think research should also zero in on resiliency in response to climate change, effective water management, optimum levels of intensification—essentially integrated systems approaches to environmental challenges.

To be ready for tomorrow, we must focus on research today.  And we need to begin thinking about the research aspects of the 2018 Farm Bill now.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems


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