LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Beth Ford, CEO of Land O'Lakes, said Monday agriculture needs "transformational funding" when it comes to research to address areas such as water needs for food production.
Ford warned against waiting for a crisis to try to catch up on agricultural research or labor needs in the U.S. She cited the risks that could occur if U.S. carryover stocks of key crops were to become tighter.
"We are the breadbasket for a number of areas and the world," she said. "I don't want us to get into a crisis situation from a food-security perspective even more exacerbated than we had with Ukraine because we aren't solving some of these issues -- making investment in R&D (research and development), making investments in water infrastructure, addressing immigration. Those are the three areas that are primary stabilizers for food production."
Ford, who has led Land O'Lakes since 2018, spoke Monday at the 2023 Water for Food Global Conference at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Ford highlighted a projection that water demand will outstrip supply globally by 56%, which will put more pressure on food production. Such projections should require more consideration about infrastructure investment around water.
"Water policy is often local, and I'm all for that, but at the same time, the impacts are global, especially in food production and agriculture," Ford said. She added, "Utilities and food production will be two of the primary industries that will be impacted by water shortages. So, water investment, infrastructure investment and thinking of it in terms of core industries and impact on food security -- that kind of framing for discussions around water and water investment -- I think is important."
Looking at the farm bill debate, Ford said she doesn't think Congress will invest enough resources needed for the U.S. to recover its status as a leader in agricultural research. Pointing to private research in areas such as seed technology, Ford noted industry consolidation has left Corteva as the only U.S.-based seed company. She pointed to climate models that show crop production even in the Midwest could decline 10% over time.
"There's been consolidation in the private sector for investment against R&D in seed technology, applied research, crop production, all of those things," she said. "Those are the kind of bulwarks against water shortages, drought-tolerant seeds, research plots and practice changes."
So, with agricultural research funding at 1970s levels, that leaves agriculture less secure, she said. "We trail China badly in terms of research funding right now," she said.
The funding pie of the farm bill is divided in too many ways, and research is often left at the end, she said. "I fear it will not be enough. It will not be transformational funding."
Right now, there is a lack of consistent investment in research programs for areas such as drought-tolerant crops, for instance, she said.
"We must raise our voice to make sure people understand this is a really fraught situation, a really fragile situation," Ford said.
Highlighting "transformational funding," Ford pointed to the $65 billion investment in broadband in the 2021 infrastructure bill.
"Similarly, we have to think of it that way for ag-research funding," she said.
However, a key part of that funding for broadband was driven by the pandemic and the crises that were spotlighted in areas such as telemedicine and education, as health-care workers needed to communicate with patients and children didn't have home internet for school.
Ronnie Green, the outgoing chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, asked Ford about ways to elevate the message on agricultural research. He said land-grant universities and others have tried different strategies over the past two decades that largely have fallen on deaf ears.
Ford responded people in agriculture need to be in the rooms where people are less exposed to issues about food security. She pointed to an event she held at Boston College tying food security to geopolitical instability and migration.
"We need others with us to help them understand why this is in their best interest to understand the challenge and advocate for investment and changes in policy," she said.
Speaking to DTN on the topic, Ford added, "Why do we see these migrants moving up from the south? Well, climate change and the inability to feed their families. So, all of this ties together, and we need to think of it that way."
Talking to some of Land O'Lakes member cooperatives, Ford said agricultural labor is already in a crisis.
The failure of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the last Congress -- it passed the House but stalled in the Senate -- leaves a giant hole in agriculture in an ever-tightening labor force.
"I think we're about 2.5 million workers short in agriculture when you look at it broadly," she said, adding, "We need more folks willing to be in production agriculture. I think over 70% of farm workers are foreign born. This isn't a political issue as much as a policy issue. When I speak to both sides of the aisle, everybody agrees we need to resolve this issue, especially for farmworkers, but for labor in general."
In her talk, Ford added that food costs are rising because of the labor problems.
"You want to reduce the price of food? Pass immigration reform. Control the controllable."
Looking at areas such as water and agriculture, Ford said there needs to be "unusual voices and partnerships." Given the irrigation in each state, Ford suggested governors as diverse and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a liberal Democrat, and Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, a conservative Republican, have a lot in common that could highlight the needs in food production.
"What I'm trying to recommend is we elevate the conversation," she said.
The start of the war in Ukraine also showed industry could come together when needed. She said farm groups recognized food would be short in some areas of the world, so they came up with some policy issues around double cropping and exporting goods because of the urgency. The ideas might not have been executed perfectly, but it showed the industry could work together.
"What I hope is we don't wait for a level of crisis until we work together," she said.
Also see "Searching for 'Cutting-Edge' Ag Research, Congress Often Leaves 'Fungus Hall'" here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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