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Doubling urged for research funds

The government's investment in food, nutrition, agriculture, natural resource, and fiber research, Extension, and education research programs “should be doubled over the next five years,” the president of a national coalition says.

And while “the best research in the world” has helped to make U.S. farmers the most efficient and productive anywhere, the country can't afford to be complacent about maintaining that pre-eminence, Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., said at a hearing by his Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, and Rural Development.

American consumers spend only about 9 percent of their income on food, he said during testimony on the research title of the new farm bill. “That's lower than most developed nations, and we need to concentrate on using our agricultural research programs to get more dollars into the producer's pockets.”

Ag research programs, Lucas said, help farmers to reduce production costs and increase profits, while helping provide consumers with lower prices and safer foods.

“We need to determine how increased research funding can best be directed — whether through discretionary or mandatory funding.”

Grain producer Terry Wolf, president of the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, which encompasses some 90 food, agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and natural resources organizations nationwide, told the subcommittee that the doubling of federal support for food and agricultural research over the next five years should be “a key component of developing a sound food and agricultural policy.”

And, he said, it should be “net additional funding, on a continuing basis, that complements, not competes with or displaces the existing portfolio of federal programs for research and education.”

It should be done for three reasons, he said: “(1) Despite past progress and contributions, many challenges remain; (2) federal funding has been essentially flat for decades, putting at risk the scientific base on which food/agriculture advances have been achieved; and (3) opportunities will be lost and innovations will not occur without increased support.”

While the private sector is extensively involved in agricultural research, federal funding is needed for research areas where the private sector lacks incentive, Wolf said. “Agricultural research and education have provided a high return on investment and enormous benefits to the American people.”

More than 300 studies, spanning a half century, showed a median annual rate of return on public investment in food and agricultural research and education was 44 percent, “an extremely high rate of return using any benchmark.” Over the last 50 years, it has amounted to an annual savings of $3,400 on the food bill of an average American family, he said.

Agricultural productivity has increased by 1.9 percent annually, nearly double that of the 1.1 percent recorded by the non-farm business sector. “In fact, over the last half century, agricultural production has more than doubled, while the aggregate of all tangible inputs has declined by about 10 percent. In other words, all the increase in U.S. agricultural production for the past 50 years has been due to increased production, not more inputs. Research and education, both public and private, have been the prime driver of this phenomenal growth.”

These advances, Wolf said, have also enhanced the environment and our quality of life. He quoted Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug: “Had the U.S. agricultural technology of 1940 persisted until today, we would need an additional 575 million acres of agricultural land of the same quality to equal the 1996-97 production of 700 million tons for the 17 main food and fiber crops produced in the U.S. Imagine the environmental disaster that would have occurred if hundreds of millions of acres of environmentally fragile lands — had been plowed up and brought into production. Think of the soil erosion, loss of forests, grasslands, and biodiversity, and extinction of wildlife that would have ensued.”

Discoveries from diet and nutrition-related research have also helped to minimize health care and disease prevention costs, Wolf noted. “Research helps to justify or minimize the risk of the investment that will produce the next generation of solutions.”

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