Underfunding Ag Research Puts America at a Competitive Disadvantage

Photo: Agronomy and horticulture students take plant measurements. Courtesy of University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

American agricultural research has sparked innovation that changes the lives of Americans and people around the world. Whether through the creation of healthier food products, prevention of food-borne disease, dramatic improvements in soil and water efficiency, increased productivity of agricultural lands, or growing our own renewable energy – American ingenuity had led the way. As Congress considers the next Farm Bill, we cannot afford to give up that leadership position.

I’ve seen it all my life – growing up on a mixed beef, dairy and cropping farm in Virginia; teaching and doing research as an animal geneticist focused on beef improvement; leading USDA programs in animal production and genomics research; working to innovate in the animal protein industries; and now, serving as chancellor of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Nebraska’s flagship, comprehensive research, land-grant university. America’s universities know how to deliver research that sparks innovation – especially in agriculture, food, and natural resources sciences.

But they can’t do that critical work – not at levels that ensure America is on the forefront of innovation – without increased funding of agricultural research. Because in recent years, countries like China, Brazil and Argentina have each committed more than us to their ag research funding. Because ag markets around the world are more competitive than ever. Because access to information via the Internet and social media is resulting in more significant changes to tastes and preferences. Because it’s more critical than ever that we produce more crop per drop and per land resource unit as natural resources are further stressed around the globe. I believe that this is the “grand challenge” of our time on the global scale – and one that we must address with the highest priority if we are to ensure a safe and prosperous world for our children and grandchildren.

America simply can’t afford to fall further behind in funding research.

The people of our state count on our university to deliver innovation in agriculture and natural resources. Nebraska has more than 45 million acres of farmland and leads the country in the production of red meat, Great Northern beans and popcorn. We come in second in the production of pinto beans, proso millet and light red kidney beans and third for corn for grain production and dry edible beans. But we don’t simply lead in production – we know the future lies in greater exports. Nebraska in 2016 was the fifth largest ag exporting state in the nation. In that year, Nebraska produced $6.6 billion of ag exports, which was three times the value that they were in 2000.

One in three jobs in Nebraska – and one in ten jobs in the U.S. – is directly tied to agriculture and food production systems.

If we cut back on research, we’ll cut the engine that fuels this economic lifeblood. Our expert faculty researchers in agriculture and natural resources go to work each day to empower Nebraska’s – and all of America’s – food producers. They’re finding ways to produce more food and fuel with less water, land resources and capital required per unit of production. They’re improving food safety. They’re also discovering how we can improve human health with adequate nutrition.

For example, researchers aligned with the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska are leading work to understand how best to minimize the gap between the current crop yields on farms and the potential yield achievable by using the best-available technologies and knowledge, while minimizing negative environmental impacts. Nebraska research findings will save lives and stop people from getting sick thanks to a broad-ranging E. coli research program that has led to improved detection methods; a better understanding of how Shiga toxin-producing E. coli proliferates; improved eradication techniques for meat-packing plants; and food safety education for consumers and K-12 schools. The Nebraska Food for Health Center, a multidisciplinary center led by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, brings together strengths in agriculture and medicine from throughout our four-institution university system. It helps develop hybrid crops and foods to improve the quality of life of those affected by critical diseases including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancers, inflammatory bowel disease and mental disorders.

These are just examples. The same breakthroughs are happening every day at agricultural research universities across the country.

America’s university researchers can deliver innovation to address the immense challenges of food, natural resource and energy security. We have the tools and the talent. But the work only goes as far as the funding. Ag research must be funded appropriately to ensure that America’s food producers have the innovation they need to create safe, healthful food for all Americans and to power economic and export opportunities across our country.

Written by:
Ronnie Green, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor and Chair, FedByScience
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