OMAHA (DTN) -- Everyone in Congress loves "cutting-edge" agricultural research, they just don't pay for it very well.
The result is that dollar for dollar, U.S. agricultural research spending actually declined over the past decade while China, the European Union, India and Brazil -- among others -- have increased their investments in agricultural research dollars. Groups committed to boosting ag research spending in the farm bill want nearly $7 billion more in committed mandatory spending over the next decade.
Still, that desire for cutting-edge agricultural research was spotlighted last week when a pair of senators and congressmen rolled out the ACE Agriculture Act. In their news release, the lawmakers said their bill would take a program called the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA) at USDA and double its existing funding authorization from $50 million to $100 million "to ensure access to more transformative agricultural innovation projects across multiple states."
The news release from Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Roger Marshall, R-Kan., as well as Reps. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, and Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., was full of praising quotes from groups backing the bill and talking about the importance of AgARDA, the return on investment, its value to help with pathogens, disease and extreme weather.
"Reauthorization of AgARDA will allow the Department of Agriculture to partner with public research institutions on rewarding advanced research initiatives that preserves the United States' role as a global agriculture leader amid a changing economic landscape," Marshall said in the news release.
The only problem is AgARDA really only exists on paper. Set up in the 2018 farm bill as USDA's answer to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), there's no research being done under the AgARDA umbrella. While AgARDA was "authorized" to spend $50 million a year, that's discretionary money. Last year, Congress gave the project $1 million. AgARDA isn't mentioned in USDA's budget proposal for fiscal year 2024.
"We don't have the committed resources" to launch a program, Chavonda Jacobs-Young, USDA undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics at USDA, told senators in a hearing back in December.
PUSH FOR MANDATORY MONEY
The farm bill right now has about $1.3 billion carved out over the next 10 years for mandatory research dollars in the farm bill. USDA's research budget is much larger than that -- about $4 billion per year overall -- but largely falls under discretionary spending approved annually by Congress.
USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has an annual budget for fiscal year 2023 of $1.89 billion. The National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at USDA spends about $1.96 billion. NIFA, created in the 2008 farm bill, largely doles out competitive grants. The biggest single chunk of NIFA's budget is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) at $455 million in FY 2023. The Biden administration has asked to increase that by $95 million for FY 2024.
The research community is growing increasingly concerned about stagnant funding in the research programs and the U.S. losing its competitive edge in agricultural research and development (R&D) to China.
Earlier this month, a collection of more than 50 various groups wrote House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders with one of the biggest asks for the next farm bill. They want $8 billion in mandatory funding for the research title of the farm bill "to spur scientific breakthroughs, keep pace with our global competitors, modernize facilities and ensure nutrition security and a sustainable food system."
Advocates for research funding highlighted some of their concerns earlier this week at a policy forum in Washington, D.C., hosted by Agri-Pulse Communications.
"It's really important for our competitiveness," said Karl Anderson, president of Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation. "If we want to remain a world leader, if we want to remain competitive, we have to make those investments."
"It's mission-critical that we think about the research needs and the facility needs ... and we've got to go big. We've got to try something different -- that we need to make the case that research should be a larger part of the farm bill."
Andy LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), agreed. LaVigne noted that various groups will nod their heads and say they support more research funding until the final priorities for the farm bill are called out. Then, those programs lose out in the final throes of farm-bill lobbying.
"We've been talking about doubling funding for research since the late '80s," LaVigne said.
Paul Patterson, dean of the College of Agriculture at Auburn University, shared a story with DTN last week about some of the problems with land-grant universities that saw significant construction projections following World War II and still rely on those buildings.
"These laboratory buildings are now 60 to 70 years old, and they are at the end of their life," he said.
Patterson then pointed to a soil-testing laboratory on campus that students and faculty call "fungus hall," adding, "The building itself just has a strange smell."
The building has a dilapidated HVAC system with temperature fluctuations so severe that it interferes with the scientific instrumentations. The temperature fluctuations also affect chemical stability, which can lead to safety issues.
"It's uninspiring to the faculty, it's uninspiring to students, it makes it more difficult for me to recruit faculty to that building," Patterson said.
Patterson pointed out that from 2012-2021, U.S. agricultural investment increased by about 2.2%. Given that inflation rose about 18% over that time, "We've actually seen a 16% reduction in real inflation-adjusted spending on R&D," he said.
The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) cites it would take about $11.5 billion nationally to upgrade the agricultural research facilities on land-grant campuses nationally. Tearing them down and rebuilding them would cost roughly $38 billion.
"I'm talking about scientists trying to conduct research, 21st century research, cutting-edge research, in buildings that were constructed during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations," said Wendy Fink, an associate vice president for food, agriculture and natural resources at APLU, at the Agri-Pulse event. She added, "The problem is there is a fungus hall across every single land-grant campus across the country,"
Fink also noted there are roughly 60,000 job openings for people with bachelor's degrees in areas involving food, agriculture and natural resources. About 36,000 people graduate with degrees in those fields.
"If you want to invest in that next generation of scientists, you need to invest in your future."
CHINA'S MANDATES VS. US DISCRETIONARY
The agricultural R&D spending in China has grown exponentially in recent years while U.S. funding has stayed flat. Wayne Watkinson, a founding partner of Watkinson Miller, who represents several agricultural checkoff programs, pointed out that when the Chinese government decides to fund an agricultural research project, there's no annual debate needed about the funding.
"There's no question. When they decide they are going to do it, they fund it," Watkinson said. "We put it in the discretionary budget where we have to fight for the dollars just to get them. It's a different system. We have to recognize that, and we have to deal with it."
A House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Research and Biotechnology will also hold a hearing Thursday to review USDA implementation of research programs in the farm bill. USDA's Jacobs-Young is set to testify.