A few years ago, a huge shift occurred in global leadership when China overtook the United States in public agricultural R&D. By 2013, according to the USDA, they had a 2-to-1 advantage over the U.S.
If a similar change occurred in defense spending, our nation would have responded with all hands on deck.
Then, in the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress took a bold step by establishing the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) with bipartisan support. Designed with a public-private partnership model meant to deliver bigger bang for the buck, FFAR is perfectly positioned to put America back on top as a global leader by accelerating problem solving on behalf of U.S. agriculture.
FFAR matches every one of its public dollars with outside funding, delivering huge value for American taxpayers. In other words, the U.S. government’s $200 million investment in FFAR will eventually deliver more than $400 million in programming.
Building a foundation from scratch is not easy, but since 2014, FFAR has hired a talented staff, developed reliable systems including a robust scientific review process, and raised funding from diverse partners. By the end of the year, the Foundation will have obligated about half of its funding and plans to award the remaining half by early 2019.
FFAR’s emergence as a cutting-edge research institution is well timed considering the many challenges we face.
In my baby boomer lifetime, total agricultural output in the United States has grown nearly 170 percent with less land and labor because we’ve embraced new technologies in crop and livestock breeding, farm equipment, fertilizer use, pest management, and farming practices—thanks to the innovations of agricultural R&D.
With 9.7 billion people projected to populate the world by 2050, we have new challenges to face with far-reaching implications. Global hunger is still unacceptably high. Pests and disease have decimated American crops like citrus while stagnant yields for crops like wheat make it tougher to compete in trade.
With an ever-increasing number of mouths to feed and threats mounting, it’s necessary that our food system keep pace by supporting innovation and technology.
Reauthorizing and fully funding FFAR in the next Farm Bill is a step in the right direction.
But the 2018 Farm Bill ain’t my first rodeo, and I know resources will be tight.
Fortunately, FFAR has a strong case to make as an efficient, innovative research organization. For example, no FFAR grant cycle is longer than six months, meaning the time is short between when a partner brings an idea to FFAR and when money is out the door. The Foundation is nimble, with the ability to award grants in as little as one week to confront emerging pest, disease and climatic threats before it’s too late. Grants can be awarded competitively, directly, or through challenges or prizes.
The dollar-to-dollar match also brings an added safeguard for taxpayers by ensuring FFAR’s partners are equally invested in delivering value and seeing results. By uniting researchers with groups like venture capitalists, the private sector and global philanthropies, FFAR can quickly bring research to scale and more than double the taxpayer’s investment.
For example, this past March, FFAR announced a national cover crop initiative in partnership with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. The $6.6 million research initiative was made possible by a $2.2 million grant from FFAR—a two-to-one match—to promote soil health through the development and adoption of new cover crops across the United States. Just two months later, FFAR responded to an emerging issue in egg production, announcing it had matched a $1 million grant to reduce bone fractures in cage-free, egg-laying hens. The research has the potential to improve the health and productivity of approximately 100 million hens by 2025.
By quickly responding to emerging issues, FFAR can serve as a bridge to traditional funding sources while supporting critical short-term research that will help farmers in the field. For instance, when an invasive pest destroyed 21 percent of Michigan’s 2016 cherry crop, FFAR funded scientists at Michigan State University to combat the pest, spotted wing drosophila (SWD), in turn benefitting the fruit industry in 10 other states.
As we look toward the 2018 Farm Bill, FFAR will continue to demonstrate its unique value to the American taxpayer, to U.S. agriculture, and to our nation’s rightful position as the global leader of agricultural science and innovation.
About the Author: Bob Stallman is a rice and cattle producer from Columbus, Texas, a past president of the American Farm Bureau Association and a member of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research’s Board of Directors.