Ag Policy Blog

Calling Attention to the Needs of Agricultural Research

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Author Gale Buchanan was USDA undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics under the last Bush administration.

The combined powers of agricultural research and technology have proven English demographer Thomas Malthus wrong for more than two centuries, but there are red flags risking to prove Malthus right if agricultural research and food production continue to be taken for granted in the coming years.

That's the basis for Gale Buchanan's book, "Feeding the World, Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century." Buchanan wants to draw attention to the declining emphasis on research and the risks forcivilization unless more effort is placed on agricultural researchthat sustains us.

Buchanan began his career as a weed scientist, which included earning a master's degree in agronomy at the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in plant physiology at Iowa State University. Over time, Buchanan moved into administration, running agricultural experimental stations in Alabama and Georgia, before eventually rising to become dean of agricultural sciences at the University of Georgia. In 2005,Buchanan was tapped by President George W. Bush to be USDA's undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics, a position he served from 2006-09.

Buchanan sent me his book after we had a conversation about the importance of the undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics and the need to have someone qualified at the helm who has worked in a scientific field at the highest levels. "Feeding the World, Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century" was published last year by Texas A&M University Press. Buchanan noted the topic of agricultural research demands far more attention than ag research now receives at the highest levels.

It was in the role of USDA undersecretary role that Buchanan became frustrated about how funding for agricultural research flows and the lack of interest in making any changes to research. Buchanan notes that American consumers have little care about agricultural research, largely because they believe grocery shelves always have been stocked with an abundance of cheap food. Farmers modestly support research, but are more interested in protecting USDA commodity programs, Buchanan added. Policy leaders are largely uninterested in agricultural research because constituencies don't clamor for it. Then there are the different priorities at USDA pulling on the purse strings that leave agricultural research underfunded, Buchanan writes.

All of this would be fine if the world were remaining status quo.However, Buchanan highlights there are "looming changes on the horizon." Most notably, the world population continues to grow and is projected to top 9.6 billion people by 2050. Then there are changes to energy demands and unknowns due to climate change.

"Each of these has implications for agriculture and particularly agricultural research," Buchanan writes. "I believe we are facing the most important challenges to our civilization other than perhaps some form of nuclear exchange."

"Feeding the World" offers background for the current arguments over the appropriate roles of biotechnology, pesticides, fertilizer and the state of current global and U.S. crop production. The book leans heavily on issues revolving around global demand for food not keeping pace with global population rise. The book only touches slightly on the impact of climate change on future food production. Buchanan points to the risks of climate change, but he doesn't use greater long-term risks to production as his main clarion call for more investment in agricultural research. Buchanan does acknowledge too many people don't take the risks seriously.

"Such phenomena as climate change are sometimes not taken seriously. Even through much is not known about climate change, there is ample evidence such changes are occurring. Consequently, there must be some plan to address the impacts of such changes."

Given that survival depends on meeting the demands ahead for food, feed, fuel and fiber, Buchanan writes that the U.S. is not taking the most important approach to addressing the problems. "We are not investing in research commensurate with the challenges of either food or energy production."

While Buchanan's book attempts to draw attention to the problem, policy pushes ahead largely ignoring such concerns. The White House seeks to slash research budgets not just for USDA, but agencies the federal government. At USDA, the pot could shrink in multiple ways. The budget proposal would cut appropriations for buildings and staff in 2018 by roughly $240 million. The proposal also would reduce appropriations to the National Institute for Food and Agriculture by $59.1 million as well, which translates into cutting grants to land-grant universities, among others.

The proposed budget cuts reflect the short-term vision offered by some policymakers today.

Buchanan notes Thomas Malthus' thesis highlights what can happen if population continues growing geometrically unchecked while agricultural production grows mathematically, one increased bushel at a time. The gloom and doom of Malthus may not come true, but Buchanan points to "several ominous trends" with the rate of yield increase slowing down for some crops while demand continues to rise. He notes, "As world population increases, we have less room for error in the event of a cataclysmic event."

Buchanan offers several priorities for further research, including an increase long-term focus on soil health. Detailing all of the proposals would spoil the book, but Buchanan offers extensive food for thought to farmers, researchers and policy leaders moving into the budget and farm-bill debates ahead on agricultural research.

"Feeding the World, Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century" can be found at…

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