WASHINGTON, June 22, 2017 - House Agriculture Committee members agreed with officials from land-grant and non-land grant universities on the importance of agricultural research at a hearing today, as the committee continues the process of preparing for the 2018 farm bill.
No one at the hearing dissented from the notion that dollars invested in ag research yield large returns, or that ag research is critical to U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. But there also was a recognition that Congress does not have an unlimited amount of money to spend.
“The U.S. has long been a leader in cutting-edge agricultural research, but our current budget problems have us scrutinizing every dollar, with public funding for agricultural research declining as a share of overall public research spending in the United States,” Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said in his opening statement.
Nevertheless, “We must continue making key investments in our agricultural research system in the most efficient manner possible,” he said.
Ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., echoed Conaway’s sentiments, but also said he was “not quite sure of the best way” to ensure that research receives adequate funding given current budget challenges.
The witnesses said their institutions need money to address decaying and aging infrastructure, and keep their professors employed and engaged in groundbreaking research on issues such as citrus greening and organic crops.
Jacqueline K. Burns, dean for research and director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Florida, said “high-quality” infrastructure is essential not just to conduct research but to retain top-notch faculty. However, the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has more than $16 million in deferred maintenance costs and “has fallen below the critical investment level needed to prevent failures in building systems.”
“The landscape of our university’s infrastructure is a patchwork of primarily decaying infrastructure with an occasional new facility built with opportunistic public and private funds,” she told the committee. “What is needed is a principled approach to agriculture research infrastructure investments that prevents building systems failures (and) enhances our ability to conduct world-class research.”
And Glenda Humiston, the University of California’s vice president of agriculture and natural resources, cited a 2015 study that pegged deferred maintenance needs at schools of agriculture at $8.4 billion.
“The infrastructure in most land-grant universities is aging, inadequate, and, in many cases, obsolete,” she told the committee.
Committee members and witnesses said the agricultural community needs to do a better job communicating the importance of ag research – not always easy given other research priorities. Texas Tech Chancellor Robert Duncan noted that USDA’s research budget of $2.9 billion is dwarfed by those of other institutions such as the National Science Foundation ($8 billion), NASA ($10 billion) and the Department of Energy ($12.6 billion).
“The importance of agricultural sciences is overlooked and often taken for granted,” he said.
Duncan, representing a non-land grant university, stressed the importance of “capacity building” funds, a reference to the formula-based scheme used by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to allocate money to land-grant colleges. The 2008 farm bill authorized capacity funding for non-land grants, but the $5 million made available to those institutions is not nearly enough, he said. (By contrast, Duncan said about $850 million is provided to land-grant universities.)
“The federal investment in capacity to non-land grant institutions can make a significant difference in the regional types of research” they conduct, he said. “We hope you will continue supporting and increasing the funding for the non-land grant colleges of agriculture competitive capacity-building program.”
Witnesses and members also emphasized the importance of biotechnology to the future of agriculture.
“Some of our biggest problems are ones that cannot be solved by conventional means,” Burns said. Gene editing and CRISPR-Cas 9 “are going to be so important in solving those problems,” she said, citing citrus greening, which has been blamed for reducing orange yields in Florida by 42 percent since it first appeared in 2005.
“Will it take an existential threat and a takeout of an industry to see and prove that these (genetic engineering methods) are going to be viable technologies and safe for the consumer?” she asked.
Other highlights from the hearing:
- Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., urged Conaway to bring up his bill, H.R. 51, which would provide $95 million for scholarships at African-American land-grant institutions. “This is so important,” Scott said.
- Steven Tallant, president of Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said the next farm bill should fund programs first authorized in the 2008 farm bill targeted at Hispanic-Serving Agricultural Colleges and Universities (HSACU’s). “None of these HSACU programs originally authorized in 2008 have ever been funded by Congress,” Tallant said.
- Walter Hill, Vice-Provost and Dean & Director of Land Grant Programs at Tuskegee University, recommended increased capacity and research funding for African-American land-grant institutions, which he said is below legislative requirements.
- Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, testified in favor of increased funding for tribal colleges, telling the committee that “the extremely small federal investment” made so far in those institutions “has already paid great dividends in terms of increased employment, access to higher education and research opportunities, and economic development.”
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