Dramatic Payoff of Ag Research Spotlighted on Capitol Hill

March 18, 2011 Bookmark and Share

The importance of agriculture research to feeding an exploding global population and keeping the U.S. economy strong was highlighted this week in Washington in a new paper released on ag research return-on-investment and as part of FY2012 budget discussions.

On Monday, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, commonly known as CAST, released a new paper taking a deep dive into the historic returns from agriculture research.

The paper showed that research knowledge pays off over a long period of time, but also depreciates and requires maintenance because agricultural pests continually evolve.

Public agriculture research expenditures grew by only 0.6 percent between 1990 and 2009, CAST said, and U.S. agricultural productivity growth has begun to slow while that in countries such as Brazil and China continues to grow.

Still, there is significant return on investment in agriculture research. Every dollar spent on public ag research and extension returns $32 to society. This echoes a separate study from Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimating wheat variety research and extension for 2009 alone provided $24 per acre in increased net returns to farmers.

And while most Americans don’t realize it, from 1948 to 2009 the share of U.S. household income spent on food declined from 22.3 to 9.5 percent.

These important facts were highlighted at a Monday lunch-and-learn session for Capitol Hill staffers sponsored by the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research (National C-FAR).

About 70 staffers attended the session, at which Dr. George Norton, a professor at Virginia Tech, presented the CAST findings during a provided lunch.

A representative of NAWG’s staff also attended the luncheon and was available to meet with attendees who had specific questions about wheat.

Later in the week, the importance of public research investments even in a time of fiscal austerity was highlighted at a House Appropriations Committee agriculture subcommittee hearing to examine USDA’s Research, Education and Economics (REE) mission area request for FY2012.

Dr. Catherine Woteki, USDA under secretary for REE, was the chief witness at the hearing. In her testimony, she highlighted the important public-private partnerships that exist in agriculture research, and agriculture’s important contributions to the U.S. economy that are possible because of the basic research supported through USDA programs. Woteki and other Administration officials also specifically emphasized the contributions USDA has made to wheat research.

In an era of dramatic deficits and looming budget cuts, much of the hearing’s discussions focused on why the federal government should be investing in agriculture research at all.

In her testimony, Woteki answered these calls, saying:

  • REE conducts research that is prohibitively expensive for private sector companies but that undergirds technological development in private businesses.
  • Many REE-developed technologies move into the private sector for use by the agriculture, food and other industries.
  • Basic research done by REE often paves the way for demonstration and commercialization of new products and processes.

“The food and agriculture sector of the economy has proven to be strong. Focusing on and enhancing these high priority programs in the budget is critical to keeping them strong, and continuing their contributions to the future economic well-being of our country,” she told Members.

NAWG continues to work with coalition partners, including state associations, to demonstrate the value of agriculture research on Capitol Hill, particularly as budget decisions are being made for both FY2011 and FY2012.

Unlike crops including corn and soybeans, wheat is disproportionally dependent on public research. Wheat is also uniquely complicated, with regional-specific varieties of six unique types, called classes, grown across 42 U.S. states. Wheat’s genome is larger than the human genome.

Testimony from the REE hearing is available online from the Appropriations Committee at http://appropriations.house.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=Hearings.Detail&HearingId=109&Month=3&Year=2011.

The full CAST paper is available online at http://www.cast-science.org/publications.asp.