Senate Ag Committee Holds Farm Bill Hearing Focusing on Agricultural Research

The Senate Ag Committee held a Farm Bill hearing yesterday that focused on agricultural research.  Recall that the Committee convened its first Farm Bill discussion back in February in Manhattan, Kansas, and conducted an additional hearing on Farm Bill related issues last month in Frankenmuth, Michigan.  And on May 25th, the Committee heard testimony from the USDA Chief Economist as it examined the state of the farm economy.  Today’s update highlights some of the issues that lawmakers focused on at yesterday’s hearing, including the extension service, animal related diseases, and the Trump administration’s agricultural budget proposal.

Background

In his opening statement yesterday, Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kans.) indicated that, “Times are tough in farm country, and research is indeed the backbone that drives agricultural change, efficiencies, and productivity.

“And the U.S must continue leading the charge to feed a growing population of 9.7 billion by 2050.

“Discretionary spending on the Research, Education and Economics mission area at USDA has remained fairly flat for the past six years. And yet, budgets are getting even tighter here in Washington. However, we must continue to focus on agricultural research.”

Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) pointed out in her opening remarks that, “The Morrill Act of 1862 created the land-grant university system with the mission to serve rural communities. Since that time, the United States has led the world in agricultural research.

“However, over the past decade, we have seen China, India and Brazil significantly increase their investment in Ag research. China now has a 2-to-1 advantage over the U.S. in critical public investments to address emerging pests, disease, and extreme weather in the agricultural sector.

If we allow our country to slip behind in agricultural research, our farmers could lose their global competitiveness.

With respect to witness testimony, Dr. Ann Bartuska, the Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education & Economics at USDA stated yesterday that, “We know that the return on investment in agricultural research is $20 for every $1 spent. Underinvestment or the absence of investments in food and agricultural sciences diminishes the needed foundational knowledge-base and impacts our Nation’s global preeminence and economic well-being.”

Dr. Bartuska added that, “Expected gains in agricultural yield and production are unlikely to sustainably provide feed, fiber, and fuel to the burgeoning population projected to be 9.7 billion people worldwide by 2050 without additional resources for research. The U.S. is losing its global scientific dominance and research leadership to emerging countries in addressing agricultural productivity and profitability challenges.”

In his prepared testimonyDr. John Floros, the Dean and Director of the College of Agriculture and Kansas State University Research and Extension, explained that,

Globally, much of the social and political unrest and riots that swept the planet in recent years have been connected to a single factor—the price of food.

“Studies, including data gathered by the United Nations, show strong correlations among the price of food against time, the so-called food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and the dates of riots around the world, whatever their cause…[F]ood security is truly central to security and political stability, not just in the United States, but throughout the world. Food security and political stability can be linked directly to agricultural and food-system innovation driven by investment in food and agricultural research.”

 

In the U.S., food ranked third behind housing and transportation in U S households’ expenditures in 2015 (Selected charts from Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, 2017, USDA-ERS (April 2017)).

And Nebraska farmer Steve Wellman testified yesterday that, “Farmers like me are rightfully concerned about trade policy, commodity risk management, crop insurance and conservation. But the ancestry of virtually every topic discussed in the Farm Bill can be traced to research. And for that matter, the future of each rests on the shoulders of our collective ability to modernize USDA agriculture research so that we don’t miss opportunities awaiting discovery.”

Mr. Wellman noted that, “Public agricultural research spending peaked in 1994 and since has declined 20 percent. The 2008 Farm Bill authorized AFRI [Agriculture and Food Research Initiative] at $700 million dollars annually yet today funding has reached only the halfway point of that level. As a percentage of total federal research investment, USDA has fallen to less than 3% of the annual federal investment. Put another way, research funding for federal agencies not including USDA is nearly $60 billion dollars. Research funding at the USDA Research mission area tops out at just over $2 billion which is an amount that has remained virtually unchanged for decades.”

Lawmaker Focus- Extension Service

During the discussion portion of yesterday’s hearing, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) noted that, “How do we, 700 folks at OSU [Ohio State University] extension in Ohio, 700 folks, from helping small dairies, to improving water quality, to helping…to help, in my case, again, an urban gardener in Cleveland, Ohio, grow tomatoes…How do we continue to empower these individuals to continue to address the ever-changing challenges inherent in agriculture and to interact with the increasing number of constituents who are interested in how their food is grown, where it comes from, and, in many cases, even growing it themselves? How do we sort of empower ag extension, a group of very committed, very talented men and women?”

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, the Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at USDA responded by saying, “Senator Brown, thanks so much. And I appreciate your kind words that you spoke about our extension community. And you’re absolutely right. Without an extension—this is a model that the rest of the world wants to emulate—our nation, and I truly believe this, would not be globally preeminent. Our ability to translate knowledge and deliver that knowledge in the form of innovations and solutions, the hallmark of extension, is truly at the basis of why we have such, you know, affordable food that’s safe and nutritious that the rest of the world wants to emulate as well.

“And we have seen, over the last about 20 years or so, with the continuing challenges in America with our budget, at the state level, at the county level, and at the federal level, our extension footprint across America, on average, in every state, has been reduced by 30%. We lost a number of those boots on the ground. Even in Ohio what they’ve done is rather than going and having extension agents in every county, they’ve now had to reduce that and create what we refer to as districts, so that you have agents servicing multiple counties.”

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, the Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture at the United States Department of Agriculture, testifying on Thursday at the Senate Agriculture Committee’s hearing on agricultural research.

Dr. Ramaswamy added that, “So in regards to your question, how do we empower them, we continue to work with the land grant universities. And obviously funding is one part of it, but we also host stakeholder conversations and make sure that the researchers and the extension folks are all working together [on] the challenges that are being felt. And, you know, earlier I said that what NIFA does is inspired by the end users, so the contact with the end users is critically important for the work that needs to be done.

“And then the work that is undertaken, the research that’s undertaken, that’s translated and delivered by our extension folks, you know, transforms people’s lives. And that’s sort of an empowerment that we’ve had historically, and we continue to do so despite the fact that we’re facing these budget challenges and things like that.

“And it really comes from partnering with other agencies, partnering with the nongovernmental sector, the Farm Bureau, the various commodity groups and others, and understanding what it is, and being a little bit more effective and smart in delivering that information, and utilizing technology as well in, you know, really looking at a multifaceted approach to stay engaged with the end users.”

Lawmaker Focus- Animal Related Diseases

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) noted at yesterday’s hearing that, “One of the specific things that affects my state, recent outbreaks of avian influenza. The PEDV and other emerging diseases highlight the significant threats facing animal agriculture and the need for more research in this area, one of the reasons I’m so concerned about budget cuts proposed by the administration to USDA. Dr. Ramaswamy, can you talk about the importance of the National Animal Health Lab Network, and are more resources necessary for that research?”

Dr. Ramaswamy explained that, “We have across America several enterprises that protect the biosecurity of our food systems—the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, the National Plant Diagnostic Network and other efforts of that sort that protect our bio…the biosecurity.

And unfortunately, you know, when we look at cybersecurity—this has been on the news lately here with the Chinese and the Russians hacking us—we’re spending about $75 billion to protect our cybersecurity. To protect the biosecurity of our food systems, we’re spending a sum total of about $38 million in America.  And I joke, but very seriously, if all of our computers are hacked, we can go back to using paper and pencil. If our food systems are hacked, we’re in serious trouble.

“And so the National Health Laboratory Network and these other networks we’ve got are critically important for us to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of protecting the biosecurity. And I agree with you that I daresay we’re, you know, really, really short in the investments that we’re making, and these networks that were created post 9/11 are falling apart, and we have to make sure we protect them.”

Lawmaker Focus- Executive Branch Budget Proposal

After his “Q and A” with a panel at yesterday’s hearing, Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) stated that, “And frankly, I hope I speak for other members of the committee when I say that because of the leadership of the chairman and the ranking member in the last farm bill, this is the only committee that actually created deficit reduction. This committee did. And the people that we represent in farm country in the United States stepped up to the plate when no other committee in the Congress did that. No other committee did that.

And for them to be presented with a 30% cut to the Department of Agriculture is an insult. It’s worse than an insult, it’s a war on rural America, I think, and rural Colorado.

“And there isn’t a replacement for the Akron research station. There isn’t anybody else who’s going to help our wheat farmers do what they need to do, our wheat growers do what they need to do year after year because of changes in the climate and changes in the environment.”

Sen. Bennet added that, “And it’s absolutely unacceptable to me because of the work that we’ve already done and the sacrifices that have already been made. In an environment with commodity prices where they are, it adds insult to injury, and it is utterly unacceptable.”

Chairman Roberts followed up these remarks by saying that, “The President proposes, and we dispose. I don’t know of any…this is not an admonition I would like to expound upon, but the President proposes, we dispose. There’s been a lot of talk about this budget, more especially, in my view, on crop insurance, ag research, etc., etc. That’s not gonna happen. Simply not gonna happen. We are in dire circumstances.

“And as you’ve indicated, we’ve given and given. We’ve got crop insurance cut six billion, and then seeing what they have done, like Lizzie Borden taking an ax, they cut another six billion. And then there’s another three in the omnibus which we saved. And so we stand ready to do what we have to do and meet our budget responsibilities, and I thank you for your comments.”

Keith Good

Keith Good is the social media manager for the farmdoc project at the University of Illinois. He is well known in agricultural circles for the daily FarmPolicy.com News Summary.