Like most Americans I listened intently as President Obama delivered his first address to the nation and Congress.
He outlined the economic challenges facing our country, noting “the answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories.” And he heralded the “largest investment in basic research funding in American history.” The president could not be more right. Investing in basic research will improve our global competitiveness but these investments need to occur in every area of the federal research budget.
In the blizzard of new research funding created by the federal stimulus bill, an important science was omitted: agriculture. While $10 billion was included for the National Institutes of Health, $3 billion for the National Science Foundation and $2 billion for the Energy Department, not a penny was dedicated for competitive research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
That’s unfortunate. Agricultural science will help us find the answers to some of our greatest problems: food safety, scarcity and cost; water quality and availability; the need for healthy soil and plants to grow food; and sustainable energy. While some of the new federal funding will find its way to agriculture-related issues like climate change and genomics, designating federal dollars to agriculture would have sent an important message.
The recent global food crisis provided a startling reminder of how critical agricultural research is to the international marketplace. It doesn’t take much - a virulent strain of disease - to decimate a developing nation’s food supply. This in turn has a negative economic ripple effect across the world.
The latest slight is another example of how the traditional agricultural sciences - agronomy, soil science, animal science and plant pathology - have somehow become inconsequential in the public eye since fewer of us actually farm anymore. Young scientists who study 21st century agriculture, however, will find it a nuanced, complex field: they work in a systematic world in which they must understand not just soil microbes at a molecular level, but also how microbes are affected by fertilizers and how soil contributes to climate change. That knowledge will lead to important discoveries that benefit all of us.
Investing in research at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation is important and will support long-term basic research; but these institutions are not designed to stimulate new and immediate growth.
Agricultural research however can quickly be turned into prosperity. It will create new jobs and advance the development of sustainable crops and better protections to prevent soil and chemical erosion into our water supply.
Because it’s conducted cooperatively with local communities, farmers, growers and educators through a national network of extension services, the USDA ensures its benefits have quick and tangible economic impacts in rural areas.
Agricultural research pays, both in general and economic well-being. And it has significant impact on the common good. Studies by my colleagues at the University of Minnesota have shown that on an international basis over the last half-century, research and development in agriculture generates among the highest average annual rates of return, as much as 58 percent. That seems like a pretty good investment, especially in today’s stalled economy.
While President Obama and Congress missed an opportunity when they failed to include funding for agricultural research in the stimulus package, I’m encouraged by the president’s recent words. With the release of his first budget, the president can rectify this inequity and with a relatively small investment, make economic gains that benefit many.
Allen Levine is dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Obesity Center. The views he expresses are his own and do not reflect an official position of the University of Minnesota.