Agricultural Research Needs to Be a Priority

Photo of Edgar E. Hartwig working in the field

Seeing President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposal and the strong commitment it makes to agricultural research reminds me of Dr. Consuelo De Moraes.

As a university researcher and panel manager of the National Research Initiative (NRI) competitive grants program, I called Dr. De Moraes in 2002 to inform her that USDA was going to fund her research proposal on determining how plants defend themselves against insects, so farmers could exploit the same as a means to control pests. She screamed with happiness. Later I learned that people heard the scream throughout the building at Pennsylvania State University. After that, Dr. De Moraes went on to great acclaim as one of the leading insect researchers. 

In 2002, only 24 percent of the proposals submitted to the NRI program were funded. Today, the funding rate for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which replaced the NRI program, that number has dipped to barely 10 percent. 

Indeed, during FY 2014, NIFA received 3,875 proposals for funding by the AFRI program, of which 1,640 were recommended for funding, and, unfortunately, NIFA could only fund 390 proposals with the resources available.

In this highly competitive environment, many talented scientists and researchers are unable to get funding and, as a result, are leaving agricultural sciences at a time when the need for their innovation is greatest or taking their expertise to other countries that are more supportive of public sector research. A growing population, climate change, diminishing land and water resources, and the need to ensure food security are becoming ever more urgent. Funding shortfalls become even more daunting when one considers the urgency of new and invasive species of pests, antimicrobial resistance, pollinator health, sustainability, poor public health and nutritional outcomes, and the need for innovations for advanced manufacturing and economic enterprises. Funding research to respond to these challenges should be considered as an investment in our Nation’s future, an investment that will pay big dividends in the years to come. 

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, and its flagship competitive grants program, AFRI, were created as part of the 2008 Farm Bill. At that time, AFRI was authorized by Congress to be funded at $700 million per year.

Since its authorization, Congressional appropriations for AFRI have gone as high as $350 million for this 2016 fiscal year. While every increase during the last few years has been helpful and has catalyzed many more Dr. De Moraeses to make transformative discoveries, there is so much more untapped potential waiting to be discovered and used. 

Here are a few recent examples of outcomes resulting from research investments in the AFRI program: new ways to deal with the influenza virus in pigs; increased milk production with fewer resources; innovative and effective ways to manage pests; innovations in irrigation technologies resulting in water savings and improved  nitrogen use efficiency; significant boosts in wheat, corn, and beef cattle productivity despite droughts and increasing temperatures; increased profitability of farmers and livestock producers; conversion of biomass into fuel for commercial and military jets; stronger biomaterials from woody and other biomass; development of new sensors to detect and to deal with pathogens of food safety importance without relying on antibiotics; protection of pollinators; significant improvement in children’s nutritional health; and last, but not least, new economic enterprises and jobs. 

Imagine the many, many more discoveries, innovations, and solutions that could be catalyzed if AFRI is funded at its full authorized level? 

Many, recognizing that our nation’s food security is tied directly to our national security, have called with urgency to increase this funding: the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, members of Congress, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, farm groups, commodity organizations, Nobel Laureates and other scientists, universities, and young people engaged in 4-H and FFA. 

That is why I applaud the President’s request for $700 million for AFRI in his 2017 Budget. The AFRI budget proposal includes $375 million provided in the discretionary request, and a legislative action to make available $325 million in mandatory funding as part of a government-wide investment in research and development.

My colleagues and I look forward to working with Congress so that our best and brightest scientists can find solutions to our most pressing societal and global challenges.