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Presidential report: Ag research needs more money

Public research is not prepared to meet the challenges U.S. agriculture faces in the 21st century and needs $700 million more per year, along with changes to the way the money is distributed, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) said in a report released late last week at a White House event.

The report said the government should shift from “formula funds” that go to land grant colleges to competitive grants, and stop focusing on commodities such as corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton and start looking at issues such as water security and integrated pest management.

“The private sector is already motivated to invest in improvements in these crops,” the advisers said in a news release accompanying the report. “According to the report, the Agriculture Department should aim more of its resources at targets that offer fewer immediate benefits to the private sector.”

The advisers noted that 36 percent of USDA’s in-house research goes for those crops.

Jane DeMarchi

Jane DeMarchi
But the National Association of Wheat Growers warned that the private sector has not devoted the same level of resources to all commodities.

“Wheat research being conducted by [the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service] scientists is still fundamental to wheat’s viability as a U.S. crop and food source,” Jane DeMarchi, director of government affairs for research and technology at the National Association of Wheat Growers said in an email.

“Additional private money has come into wheat in recent years, but that research is still at its beginning stages and largely focused on variety development rather than more basic investigations into pests and pathogens,” DeMarchi added. “We estimate that 70 percent of wheat varieties grown in the U.S. were developed through the public research system, unlike other major crops like corn and soybeans.”

“The PCAST report highlights wheat stem rust Ug99, which is a serious emerging disease that could dramatically impact farmers and consumers around the world. Combating such a serious threat takes long-term, committed funding, and ARS scientists are recognized as the global experts on this disease.”

The report, which was addressed to President Barack Obama, was requested in 2011 by Agriculture Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Catherine Woteki and Roger Beachy, who was then the director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

Daniel Schrag

Daniel Schrag
Daniel Schrag, a professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard and director of the Harvard University Center for Environment, co-chaired the study. He noted at a launch event at the White House on Friday that the report recommends more basic research be funded through the National Science Foundation and other research through USDA.

Schrag also noted “there is concern that agriculture is not attracting the very best students.”

Tom Sinclair, a former University of Florida professor who is now an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University, said that students with ecology degrees are now better prepared for graduate school than students of agricultural science.

But Schrag noted that schools of environmental science have been ignoring agriculture. He also noted that while within PCAST there has been a resistance to calls for additional funding, when it came to agriculture the council members “did not blink. The need is there.”

Catherine Woteki

Catherine Woteki
Woteki said “The central question is how to sustainably intensify agriculture production” to meet the food needs of a growing world population.

In an interview, Woteki said she would analyze what recommendations she can put in place without congressional action and that she also point out the recommendations in the report to the agriculture authorizing and appropriations committees.

Woteki also noted that the report calls for more a new “ecosystem for research,” including six new innovation institutes with both public and private support.

Peter McPherson

Peter McPherson
Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and Ian Maw, vice president of food, agriculture and natural resources for APLU, noted in a news release that the report “calls for the intensification of research and education though targeted new investments of $700 million for research, the establishment of new innovation institutes to focus on agricultural challenges, and expansion of graduate and post-doctoral fellowships.”

“We congratulate the PCAST members for focusing the nation’s attention on this critical issue and producing a strong report,” the APLU said.

Ian Maw

Ian Maw
Maw said in an interview that even though the report called for an increase in competitive grants, he did not consider this an attack on the land grant colleges. He noted that the land grant schools had supported an increase in competitive grants in the 2008 farm bill debate and that the report calls for an overall increase in agricultural research funding.

Maw praised the report for pointing out the duplication between public and private sector research and for raising the issue of developing the agricultural workforce and the need to get more people into the agricultural sciences.

Fulfilling the report’s goals, Maw said, will have to be a “collaborative” and “coordinated” effort among USDA, Congress, the land grant colleges and the private sector.