It’s typical of how things have been going for farmers that the one bright spot in the United States agricultural sector has the darkest outlook, with the entire segment poised to fall off a cliff deeper than anyone can imagine.
Most of the U.S. agricultural sector is in dire straits from a lethal trifecta of “adverse weather, weak commodity prices and trade disruptions," according to the latest report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Farm bankruptcies are up 24 percent over last year. But pork production has been doing Ok — for now.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts a 10.8 percent increase in hog prices in 2019 compared to 2018. In the first nine months of 2018, U.S. pork exports to China exceeded 142,200 metric tons despite the trade war. And yet, pig farmers across the U.S. are holding their breath, because this outlook depends on African Swine Fever not arriving on U.S. soil.
Despite the name, African Swine Fever (ASF) is an international threat, appearing in more than 50 countries. In China, which typically produces more pork than every other country combined, an estimated 300 million pigs have perished from either the incurable viral infection or from mass cullings of an inconceivable scale.
In the U.S., which produced approximately 130 million pigs for meat production last year, the USDA is working with state officials and industry representatives to prepare for an outbreak, running drills to isolate farms with infections and identify how the virus may enter production systems.
But developing effective contact tracing responses doesn’t even close the barn door after all the animals leave. It just helps us figure out which way they went. The real imperative – since a decade ago, when an ASF viral outbreak in Eastern Europe spiraled out of control – has been to find a way to prevent transmission or cure the infection before it spreads. Right now, we have no answers except to slaughter hundreds of millions of pigs. And finding the funding for such critical research needs has gotten harder and harder every year.
In 1940, the federal government channeled almost 40 percent of its entire investment in research and development to the agricultural sciences. Today, U.S. agricultural research funding represents less than 2 percent of the total, and farmers have to depend on geography – not science – to keep their livestock safe.
With world-class laboratories, the U.S. once led the planet in agricultural innovation. But now we are practically standing in place, despite all the threats, from viral diseases like ASF to extreme weather conditions to food poisoning outbreaks, not to mention the instability of commodity markets.
The last time an outbreak of this magnitude hit U.S. farms was the avian influenza outbreak of 2015, in which more than 50 million chickens and turkeys were culled to stop the spread of the disease.
This year, Chinese farmers have had to kill five times that number of livestock. The tens of millions of bird corpses became a public health threat when they could not be buried fast enough — U.S. farmers shudder to think of how to dispose of much larger pig corpses in that scale of slaughter.
Despite the paltry funding, researchers have still made strides in determining how viruses like ASF are propagated. For example, a team of scientists from Kansas State University determined threshold levels of contamination for the virus to be transmitted through animal feed. The team needed two grants to conduct the research, one from a federally funded industry group and one from the state of Kansas. Previous research at the university, which determined how to remove another contagious virus from pig feed, tapped grants from two other sources.
Eleven years ago, in an effort to revamp how the USDA provides research grants, Congress established the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The program provides funding through a competitive process in which proposals are rigorously peer-reviewed.
AFRI was “authorized” with a $700 million budget in the 2008, 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills. But this level has never been reached in the horse trading that takes place during the annual federal budget negotiations. Too many other priorities push this important branch of research aside.
As a result, the program typically provides funding to less than a quarter of the science that the program’s expert panels deem worthy. And researchers tackling critically important problems first have to tackle the question of how to get funded.
Science can solve so many of our problems, but not without steady funding. Producing food is fast becoming a Sisyphean task, with farmers struggling to solve many of today’s insurmountable challenges before new crises push their operations back down again. Agriculture cannot evolve without new breakthroughs.
Farmers will always strive to keep pushing that rock up the hill. But only new innovations, driven by scientific research, can stop the rock from rolling downhill yet again.
Thomas Grumbly is president of Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation. He has held senior policy roles in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Office of Management and Budget and the Food and Drug Administration.