Backed up by a glossy report by two ag economists from the University of Minnesota, the Farm Journal Foundation has issued a remarkably unimaginative call for a doubling of public funding for agricultural research…because U.S. ag research funding is falling behind China, Brazil, India…and because we have to feed 9 billion people.
Over the years there have been hundreds of reports like Revitalizing Agricultural Research and Development to Sustain US Competitiveness, few of which have made much of a difference. I have contributed to several reports suffering the same fate.
Overall public funding for ag research has continued to decline. The shift from public to private control over ag R+D has continued unabated. And each year, a smaller share of a shrinking pie is invested in dealing with the real roots of problems, and the real needs of people, as opposed to propping up failing systems and protecting the sales and profits of private companies.
Spending more money on the types of research being done today with public dollars will help farmers, and society, understand a bit more deeply why in this day and age of advanced technology there are so many serious problems plaguing primary producers, and why food quality and dietary choices are significant risk factors for 6 to 7 of the 10 leading causes of morbidity and mortality.
More-of-the-same research will lead to new and better band aids to slow the bleeding from long-term, persistent problems like declining soil health, antibiotic resistance, overweight and obesity, resistance, narrowing of the genetic base of major crops, fruits and vegetables that are rock hard, devoid of flavors and nutritionally compromised, birth and developmental effects from exposures to pesticides, water quality degradation, animal welfare and health, and agriculture’s ever-growing climate change footprint.
To build the case for sustaining today’s level of publicly funded agricultural research, let alone doubling it, USDA and the agriculture and food industry establishment need to take a long, hard look at why so many problems continue to worsen when cost-effective solutions to them have been known for years. Today’s predominant crop and livestock farming systems, equipment, inputs, and technology are not the most cost-effective and “sustainable” on their merits, but because of decades of public and private investments in the infrastructure supporting them.
Such infrastructure is slow and costly to change. Livelihoods and profits depend on it. It also encompasses the policy, institutional, legal, market access, skill-base, and cultural norms that have shaped the way farmers farm, how and for whose benefit food moves along value chains, what consumers know about food, and how and for whose benefit government policies control access to markets and tilt the competitive playing field.
It has become clear to me that the public benefits of public agricultural research does not typically arise from the importance and quality of the science, or from its linkages to real-world challenges and opportunities. Elegant keys do nothing in the wrong lock.
The social benefits stimulated by scientific progress depend on whether the science, technology, or changes in process or policy flowing from it, fall within the mainstream of the system, where major economies of scale and long-term investments in infrastructure help determine what is both economically viable and culturally acceptable.
To bring about meaningful change, new science must do more than fall within the mainstream. It also must point the way, or facilitate change in the general direction of flow, within the predominant mainstream.
Research that goes against the flow, or starts from a place not relevant or recognized by the mainstream, is not likely to be taken seriously or have much impact.
So, I hope farming and food industry leaders, and policy makers, will think more deeply about the full set of conditions that must be in place for publicly funded research to deliver important societal benefits. For most of my career, the solution to just about every problem in the ag/environment/ conservation/food safety/nutrition/public health space has been more funding for ag research, but now I realize that more research funding, even if well spent, can only do so much and sometimes makes matters worse.
Far too much of current ag research funding is devoted to propping up farming systems and technology that should have been phased out years ago. Our inability to prevent a steady flow of newly resistant bacteria, weeds, insects, and plant diseases is a failure of management, policy, and system choice, not science.
The snails pace of efforts to bring government food labeling and dietary advice into alignment with current science is probably our most consequential and costly failure.
I do believe that public support for more agricultural and food system research would swell if the public were convinced that the results of new research would actually make a difference in their health and quality of life. But unfortunately that crucial linkage between public ag research and quality of life fell by the wayside many years ago, and re-establishing it is going to require a sea change in attitudes and leadership.
Plus, there will be many voices criticizing any meaningful changes in research priorities and infrastructure investments. Trade associations, farm groups, and their allies in government and academia will warn that such shifts in focus will lead to everything from food shortages and famine, to a world without French fries and Big Macs. That criticism, in turn, will undermine already-difficult efforts to build public confidence in new science for new directions, and so we will muddle on and current trends will likely persist. What a shame.