An Urban's Rural View

Why We Still Need Cutting-Edge Ag Research

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Among farmers and ranchers, agricultural research is a motherhood and apple-pie issue. Everyone's for it. Everyone "knows" ag research is a good thing that taxpayers should help finance.

Yet financing it hasn't proved an easy sell in Washington, even though every Congressman has agricultural constituents of one kind or another. For decades, government funding for ag research has paled compared to outlays for research on things like national defense, human health and energy. For almost two decades Uncle Sam's contributions to ag research have been declining.

American agriculture, it seems, is a victim of its own success. No agricultural system in history has come close to growing as much food. So, what's the problem, our public servants might well ask. Why, at a time of huge federal budget deficits, do we need to invest more in ag research when our farms already produce such an abundance of affordable food? Won't private companies reap much of the benefit? If they want the research, why not let them pay for it?

In 2014, Congress asked a different question: Could public investments be used to leverage private investments, multiplying the bang for the public's buck? The answer was yes, and the result was a provision in the 2014 farm bill creating the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit organization that builds public-private partnerships to increase scientific and technological research in agriculture.

In 2015 Sally Rockey became FFAR's first executive director. A glance at her resume explains why she was chosen for the job. A PhD entomologist, she spent much of the previous 30 years overseeing research grants at USDA and later the National Institutes of Health. She knows both the lay of the land and the need to get the most out of the limited resources available.

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And limited they are. In recent years, federal research spending has been ranging between $140 billion and $160 billion a year. But it's heavily weighted toward the military and human health. The Department of Defense receives the biggest chunk, generally well more than double what the National Institutes of Health gets. NIH's research funding is roughly 10 times USDA's, which in turn is more than 10 times the $200 million Congress authorized for FFAR.

To make grants from this authorization, FFAR must have dollar-for-dollar matching funds from other sources. To attract those matching funds, FFAR must focus on research that that otherwise would not get done. "We look for the white spaces, the gaps," Rockey says in an interview. Most of these gaps are at the cutting edge of scientific innovation.

Take, for example, the support FFAR announced on November 30 for a study aimed at identifying the genes that control drought tolerance in rice. The research brings together scientists at four universities, led by the University of California at Davis. FFAR is providing $1 million of the $2.3 million grant, with the rest coming from the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health, the Structural Genomics Consortium and two companies, AgBiome and Promega.

According to an FFAR press release, "The project targets protein kinases, enzymes that control diverse biological process in plants, such as root architecture and drought. Genes corresponding to kinases discovered in this project will be further characterized using a recently established comprehensive collection of mutants to assess their roles in root system architecture and drought tolerance."

Now I confess to being the kind of scientific ignoramus who stumbles a few times reading a paragraph like that, not least when I contemplate how the researchers will use that "comprehensive collection of mutants." But even scientific ignoramuses can grasp that this is not the kind of research most companies would finance on their own. Companies prefer to invest in "applied" research that leads directly to products they can sell. This is "basic" research, intended to produce not products but knowledge. Companies may eventually build products by using the knowledge, but the whole world will be the wiser for this work.

Basic research has traditionally been a public function, but over the last couple of decades public investments in ag research have declined. Rockey says FFAR's new public-private model enables it to do things neither the public nor private sectors can do alone. These include multiplying the benefits of public money and enabling companies and academic researchers to work together for the benefit of both sectors. And not just researchers. FFAR can also bring to the table foundations, philanthropists, venture capitalists and even foreign governments.

So far, FFAR has worked with 70 funding partners who have provided $91 million in matching funds. It invested $1 million with the Open Philanthropy Project toward research on breeding hens that are better suited to cage-free environments. It invested $15 million in a project with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K. Department for International Development to harness photosynthesis and increase crop yields. Working with universities and commodity groups it has awarded $850,000 on quick-turnaround "emergency response grants" to combat new pests and pathogens.

There's no doubt in Sally Rockey's mind that cutting-edge ag research is necessary. Without it, agriculture won't be able to adjust to the challenges it faces. New pests and diseases. Changes in climate. Increased awareness of the links between health and food. A growing population.

Which raises the question, what will Congress do for -- or to -- FFAR in the next farm bill? Rockey says legislators have assured her they do not regard FFAR as an experiment. Her hope, which has garnered support from some ag lobbying groups, is that the next farm bill will be at least as generous to FFAR as the last. But the farm bill pie is likely to be smaller, and there's no guarantee FFAR won't end up with a smaller slice. This could be a pivotal moment in the history of ag research.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanize@gmail.com

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