A Unified Way to Meet the Challenges of Agriculture

By Wendy Wintersteen

This commentary by Wendy Wintersteen, endowed dean, about the need to speak together on increasing federal agricultural research funding appeared in the Aug. 30, 2017, Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.

A few short weeks from now, in October, the weeklong World Food Prize event will begin in Des Moines, and many of the “Grand Challenges” of agriculture will once again receive welcome attention:

  1. A near doubling of the world’s population in the next 40 years;
  2. A shrinking supply of arable land, accessible water and non-degraded soils;
  3. New virulent pests and diseases, which have the capacity to ravage crop and animal production; and
  4. Increasing climate variability, resulting in more difficult growing conditions, greater soil erosion and reduced yields.

Given the severity and increasing immediacy of these well-known Grand Challenges, you might imagine a significant increase in federal agricultural research funds. If so, you would be wrong.

In 1985, federal agricultural research funds came to $1.9 billion. In 1995, it increased to $2.2 billion. In 2005, it stood at $2.9 billion. And in 2016, as these Grand Challenges seem ever more pressing? In 2016, federal ag research funding for the USDA fell to $2.6 billion. Of course, when factoring in the loss of purchasing power due to inflation, the decline in federal ag research funds looms larger, even as the Grand Challenges come closer.

Has the federal government simply moved away from funding research altogether? Not at all. Federal funds for science have increased markedly during the last four decades — except for agriculture.

Why have some groups seen dramatic increases in federal research funding in that time period?  And why have the Grand Challenges of agriculture not resulted in action? The answer may be seen in the history of an organization called Research!America.

In 1985, medical researchers felt that federal funding was lacking for significant medical challenges. Examining the situation and talking to congressional staffers in Washington, they realized that congressional people were being bombarded by a cacophony of competing interests. Kidney researchers wanted this. Diabetes researchers wanted that.  Cellular function advocates had other needs. And that does not even get to the rare diseases that demanded attention.

The medical researchers, universities, corporations and nonprofit advocacy groups concluded that instead of a piecemeal approach, they needed to rally their community around a common theme of increased federal funding for the entirety of medicine.  From this push to unify around a common message, Research!America was born.

By having a top-level common message focused on the need for significant increases in medical funding, Research!America — and the disparate organizations that had signed on and agreed to sublimate their own interests to the greater need for an overall funding increase — began to reach members of Congress. From $10.3 billion in research funding in 1985, federal medical research funding hit $16 billion in 1995, and $34 billion in 2005. Unified under a common message, their message was finally heard by Congress, and Congress responded. 

In December of 2014, I spoke at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. to deliver a possible solution to the lack of agricultural research funding. I announced the release of a collaborative report, titled “Pursuing a Unifying Message: Elevating Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Research as a National Priority.”

Based on the collaborative efforts of numerous university leaders and other participants, we realized that the current approach was not working. Various commodity organizations, nonprofit advocacy groups and the universities with agricultural programs independently asking for federal research funds had led to little net increase in federal ag research support — and even worse, little focus on the Grand Challenges of agriculture.

With support from the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation, we agreed that federal research funding to support these Grand Challenges will only be realized if diverse organizations, universities, corporations and nonprofit advocacy groups rally around a common message: federal food, agricultural and natural resources research funding must rapidly increase to meet these difficult challenges of feeding an increasing world population with fewer acres of productive land.

Bit by bit, we have been reaching out to food, agricultural and natural resources organizations and advocacy groups to ask them to come together with a common request for greater federal research funding. Knowing that a rising tide can lift all boats, a common call for federal research funding to increase so that we can meet the challenges of a growing population on a shrinking planet, may finally bring some relief to the pressures facing society, including our agricultural community here in Iowa.

Here in Ames, as the new semester has just begun, many of our agricultural students bring back stories of their summer experiences in other countries. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has one of the largest study abroad programs of any agricultural college in the nation.  Besides the mind-expanding benefits of travel, many of our students are seeing on these trips the effect of malnutrition, chronic food insecurity, degraded natural resources and unrelenting pest pressures. Often, they tell me what a powerful impact these trips have made on them, and how they understand the true importance of agricultural research and education.

The Grand Challenges of agriculture exist, and their impacts are being felt even here in Iowa. By coming together with a call for more federal agricultural research support, we have a chance to respond to these tremendous challenges with new ideas, new energy and new hope. 

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Wendy Wintersteen is the endowed dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the director of the Agriculture Experiment Station at Iowa State University. She also serves as president of the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation, which promotes a broader, more complete understanding of agriculture as the most basic human endeavor and to enhance agriculture through increased scientific knowledge.

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