Toward an “Innovative Ecosystem” for Ag Research

December 13, 2012
By Chuck Benbrook

On December 7, 2012 the President’s Council on Science and Technology released a report on the health of the nation’s agricultural research enterprise.  It is a remarkable document that deserves close attention and a central place in the ongoing debate over where and how to deploy science and technology in advancing progress in the food and agricultural sectors.

Most reports on this topic issued by government agencies and national organizations restate widely accepted, but generally nebulous goals and offer little in the way of specific details, either on what is wrong with the system or on what is needed to move it in a positive direction.  This report excels in its analysis and articulation of the problems and challenges.  It also cuts to the chase in discussing problems with our nation’s current investment in public agricultural research, and correctly identifies steps that would heighten the publicly funded research system’s ability to advance science and technology in the public’s interest.

Like most reports, it falls short in addressing, and suggesting a path around the formidable, entrenched political hurdles that have made the public agricultural research system so resistant to change for a half-century.  Its recommendation for a $700 million annual increase in public support for ag research – about an 18% increase – is a non-starter as we teeter at the edge of the fiscal cliff.

Report to the President thumbA few teasers follow that only scratch the surface of this report’s intriguing content.  The main body of the report runs 47 pages.  The chapter on new challenges spans 12 of them and covers seven emerging challenges:

  • Managing new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants
  • Increasing water use efficiency
  • Reducing ag’s environmental footprint
  • Growing food in a changing climate
  • Biofuels
  • Producing safe and nutritious food, and
  • Advancing global food production and security.

The report’s language is refreshingly direct, and is even alarming in a few places.  For example, consider this passage from the Executive Summary –

“Our most important conclusion is that our Nation’s agricultural research enterprise is not prepared [emphasis added] to meet the challenges that U.S. agriculture faces in the 21st Century for two reasons.”

I cannot think of another report of this stature with such a decisive problem statement.  I wish they had gone on to explain the consequences of inaction more clearly in order to build the strongest possible case for change.

The report highlights the shift of the nation’s overall investment in ag research from the public sector to the private sector, pointing out that “private industry now outspends USDA [US Dept. of Agriculture] in agricultural research by more than three to one.”

While the private sector will continue focusing on innovations driving up crop yields, “the case for public investment in this area of research and development is less compelling.” The report discusses several factors that are already undermining yields, including the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds and the depletion of groundwater resources, and explains why the private sector cannot be counted on to solve these problems.

In order to more effectively promote plant and animal health, the report states that “new insights regarding the roles of beneficial microbial communities may stand to boost health and productivity,” an observation clearly supported by the findings of many of WSU’s BIOAg projects in recent years.

Strong language is used to describe the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes, and how food systems and dietary choices contribute to these costly societal problems.  The report highlights “the accumulating scientific evidence that sugar [consumption] should also be limited…”  In particular, the focus should be on “…diabetes-inducing sugars” (i.e., high-fructose corn syrup), a provocative phrase quoted from a 2012 commentary in Nature magazine entitled “The toxic truth about sugar” (Vol. 482: page 27,029).

One of the most provocative passages acknowledges the existence of physiological limits in driving up crop yields and production per animal, in light of the need to preserve animal health and environmental quality.  This recognition that the pursuit of ever-higher yields often undermines attainment of other worthy goals – animal health and welfare, food safety, nutritional quality, the environment — is welcomed and long overdue.

The report offers three primary recommendations.

First, the federal government should shift more funding from Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and formula funds to competitive grant programs, including those administered outside of USDA in the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  The report points out that 18 of the top 20 universities, ranked by the value of NIH grants awarded, are not land grant universities.  This means that the core science and technology issues confronting our food and fiber system, and impacting the livelihood of people holding 12% of the jobs in America, are benefitting marginally, at best, from a huge percentage of the nation’s top-flight, publicly funded research activity.

Second, a new “innovation ecosystem” must be created in which the focus of research, how it is conducted, and by whom, changes.  The need to shift public research investments away from areas now dominated by private sector investment is emphasized throughout, as is the need to reduce the percent of public research and development funding devoted to the top-six crops and top-four livestock species.  This is the report’s weakest area, where inside-the-beltway lingo does not break any new ground.

Third, the federal government should increase ag research funding by $700 million annually, with about one-half of the increase flowing to non-traditional players outside the land grant system and ARS. It is hard to imagine Congress finding new funds for these purposes, but the message remains a useful one.  The case made for spreading new money more widely across the nation’s research institutions may trigger some creative thinking in Congress as members decide how to compress current funding without sacrificing progress in essential areas of research and development.

The report is short on solutions and advice on how to foster creative change in a budget climate that has agencies and interest groups hunkering down in defensive mode.  But it describes some compelling reasons why Congress and federal agencies should reshape the ag research “ecosystem” to leverage innovation in the public’s interest.

One comment on “Toward an “Innovative Ecosystem” for Ag Research”

  1. Brian Baker said on December 14, 2012:

    I agree that the report does an excellent job of identifying problems and a poor one of identifying solutions. There is a curious lack of vision for what a sustainable, healthy and resilient food system will look like. The rhetoric of creating an ‘innovation ecosystem’ and diversification clearly does not match the recommendations that double down on specialization and consolidation with public-private partnerships accessible only to a few corporations and a handful of commodities that support checkoff programs.

    How can they talk about an ‘innovation ecosystem’ and practically ignore the need for a better understanding of the ecology of agricultural ecosystems?

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