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Wheat leaders: No more cuts to research

Wheat research has been vital to the crop’s continued success, but cutbacks in federal research could endanger its future, wheat farmers, researchers and millers told members of Congress last week.

Bob Wisness

Bob Wisness
Bob Wisness, a North Dakota producer, said at a March 27 National Association of Wheat Growers news briefing that research on Fusarium head blight, a wheat disease known as scab, has allowed wheat to continue to be produced in the same amounts despite scab’s continued existence.

Without the scab initiative, “wheat would be irrelevant in eastern North Dakota,” Wisness added. He also noted scab continues to be a threat and that growers must be convinced to plant scab-resistant varieties.

“We have to make an effort to convince people this is not just critical for a few farmers but the nation as a whole.”

Brett Carver, a professor at Oklahoma State University, noted that maintaining the viability of wheat is important because wheat is “the most important food crop on this planet, the most important source of protein.”

Research, he noted, has allowed it to be planted from northern Russia to southern Argentina.

Montana farmer Bing Von Bergen said, however, that wheat constantly develops new problems, which demonstrates the importance of local research. Last year, he noted, there was rust in Montana and sawfly in North Dakota and Montana.

“About the time researchers solve a problem, another rears its head,” he said.

Although the private sector has increased investment in wheat in recent years, private firms have not invested as much money in wheat research as in corn and other crops because wheat farmers tend to keep seed from year to year and consumers have resisted genetic modification of wheat.

NAWG spokeswoman Melissa Kessler noted that wheat “is disproportionately dependent on public investment.” Three quarters of the wheat varieties that have been developed have come from the public sector, she said.

The Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service has been spending $5 million per year on a wheat and barley scab initiative, but cut that budget $1.4 million — 30 percent — in fiscal year 2012 in order to pay for the closure of ARS laboratories. The Agriculture Department spends about $50 million in total on wheat research per year.

Fly-in participants asked members to support the Obama administration’s requests for $1.1 billion in funding for ARS and $325 million in funding for USDA’s premier competitive grant program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

NAWG officials said they support President Barack Obama’s proposal to increase the budget for the research, education and economics division at USDA. NAWG officials released a letter from more than 900 agricultural groups and individuals supporting Obama’s proposed increase, but they also acknowledged that various agriculture interests are likely to be fighting over the same pot of money as the appropriations process proceeds.

March 18, 2012 Letter in Support for FY13 Funding for Food and Agricultural Research, Education and Economics