Commentary: Losing the long-term view

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The draft farm bill recently passed by the Senate, also known as the “Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 201,” runs a full 11 pages of closely spaced type.

For its table of contents.

The remainder of the bill goes on for about another 1,081 pages—and much of that is merely itemizing “reforms and repeals” to the existing Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.

For example, a new approach to the dairy support program is aimed at helping stabilize volatile dairy prices due to rampant overproduction and provide insurance against market losses. The bill discourages overproduction of milk, offers insurance against soft market prices and reduces payments to farmers who increase production when prices are in a down cycle.

That’s exactly what many people—legislators included—think a farm bill should do: Manipulate the market through a mix of incentives and penalties to keep farmers, growers and producers in business, on the land and in the black.

What is far less visible and much less celebrated, however, is the billions government spends on funding research at land grant universities and other public institutions—even though those dollars impact food safety, affordability and security, issues that large majorities of consumers care about with conviction.

Here’s the problem: The funds allocated to scientists, academics, technicians and private-sector researchers don’t directly impact people’s lifestyles. The seemingly huge flow of funds allocated to dozens of organizations and researchers doesn’t affect people’s day-to-day lives the way that food-assistance, rural development, disaster relief and even crop development programs do.

Most members of the animal agriculture industry understand the importance of research as a driver of long-term progress; unfortunately, not too many congressional members or staff have a similar appreciation.

In fact, although overall farm bill research funding has been more or less stable for the last 30 years, the proportion of federal research funds allocated to land-grant and public research institutions has been chopped in half, according to USDA data analyzed by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Despite that trend,over the last 60 years U.S. agriculture has tripled its productivity, largely due to innovations and improvements funded by public research allocations.

Short-term focus

These days, not only do researchers dependent on the federal funding provided to both public and private institutions have a decidedly lower profile—and less clout—than lobbyists for many other, more immediate problems Congress is expected to solve, the basic science undergirding their work has fallen out of favor.

In 2008, the farm bill funding formula shifted spending dramatically toward competitive grants, projects that must compete for approval. In theory, that’s healthy; projects need “legs” to secure support, and that means that money ends up being directed toward outcomes that are specific and measureable.

But basic research—by definition—has no immediate, short-term, closely defined outcomes. By definition, blue-sky R&D has no pre-ordained destination. Yet such research is precisely where so many innovations have originated.

As crises in food production, energy availability, land use and resource limitations loom ever larger, the research focus cannot continue to shift toward short-term solutions, and toward public-private “partnerships” that ultimately yield proprietary data.

Despite the fact that there are critical challenges related to agriculture on our collective plate—including climate change, land use, rural development and even dietary challenges such as obesity—there remains a need to balance immediate problems, like dairy prices, with longer term issues such as agricultural productivity.

As a nation, we need to be aggressive in rising to the many near-term challenges related to food production. There is no question about that, and there shouldn’t be debate that the federal government has a crucial role in funding development of the scientific and technological innovations needed to deal with them.

But all of agriculture also needs to keep its eyes firmly fixed on the horizon as well.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator


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