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Amid a global food crisis, federal funding for agriculture research continues to decline

Iowa State University bacteriology professor Gwyn Beattie, who studies plant health, opens a freezer bank full of microbial cultures at Iowa State University's Advanced Teaching and Research Building. She says it's harder to procure federal funding for her research.

Federally funded agricultural research has made the U.S. into the commodity crop powerhouse it is today. Innovations like better seed varieties, genetic enhancements in livestock and advanced machinery have helped triple food production in the U.S. over the last 70 years.

And yet, the federal government’s investment in agriculture research has declined by a third over the past two decades.

That could spell trouble for an industry grappling with the effects of climate change and an increasing world population. Agricultural groups and industry leaders are warning now is not the time to cut back funding.

“We’re going to have less arable land, less available water in the future,” said Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford at a recent public event. “And at the same time, the population is set to go to nine and a half or ten billion. By 2050, we have to produce more food than the last five thousand years combined.”

Continuous funding for agriculture research is the only way we’ll meet that demand, Ford added.

An inside look 

There are thousands of people across the U.S. conducting all kinds of agricultural research, from crop resiliency to livestock health to weed suppression. And while the federal government funds most of that research, it’s non-government groups that are mostly conducting it. In fact, about 70% of agriculture research takes place at land grant universities.

Gwyn Beattie is one such researcher. She’s been a professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Iowa State University for nearly 30 years, and her research mostly focuses on plant health.

She recently received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study how certain crops, including soybeans, can better endure drought conditions.

“There’s not a sustainable amount of available fresh water for agriculture everywhere, in the way we’re going,” Beattie said. “So we really need plants that can thrive with less water.”

Iowa State University bacteriology professor Gwyn Beattie sits in her office in ISU’s Advanced Teaching and Research Building. The data on the powerpoint behind her is from federally-funded microbe research. 11/18/2022 Photo by Katie Peikes
Professor Gwyn Beattie says federal grants tend to have longer timelines, which is helpful for her time-consuming, multi-year research projects. Katie Peikes / Harvest Public Media

That type of research is becoming increasingly important in areas like the Midwest, where this year’s drought has decimated crop yields and forced many farmers to contend with potential irrigation limits. Those tough growing conditions are only expected to get worse as the climate continues to change. As a researcher, Beattie said that’s at the forefront of her mind.

“Climate change is something that I don’t think any researcher cannot be thinking about as a central driver,” she said. And federal dollars are especially important “because they’re on a magnitude that actually allows you to make multi-year progress with the research,” Beattie said.

But that funding is increasingly sparse. In 2019, federal funding for agricultural research totaled $5.16 billion. That’s a third lower than it was at its peak in 2002, when the government spent $7.64 billion on agricultural research.

Meanwhile, China has surpassed the U.S., becoming the world’s top funder of agricultural research. Brazil — a major U.S. competitor in agricultural exports — has also increased its funding over the past two decades.

The problem with private funding

While public funding for agricultural research has continued on its downward trajectory, private, corporate-funded research has shot up. In fact, some years, the amount of private funding from mega food and agriculture corporations like Bayer, PepsiCo and Syngenta has totaled more than double public funding.

Take Iowa State University, for example. The school has seen a 50% increase in company-funded research over just the last two years, according to Jim Reecy, associate vice president for research.

“Agriculture research funding has gone up more than any other area that we have for company-funded research,” Reecy said.

Regardless of who’s paying for it, Reecy said professors have full freedom to conduct their own research.

“We want to be seen as an unbiased source of information whether a company is paying for it or the federal government is paying for it,” he said.

Yet, some researchers worry the corporate funding model could skew the research agenda.

“(Corporations are) looking for ways that research can develop products — tangible, intangible — that people will spend money on that will increase their base of profit,” said Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, a director at American Farmland Trust.

She argues research is a public good, and it should be up to the federal government to fund it.

“[The federal government] has the public interest in mind more than any other entity and can take a broader view,” she said.

(For more, read Big Ag U, Harvest Public Media’s award-winning investigation into corporate agriculture funding at land grant universities in the Midwest.)

It’s up to Congress

Every five years, Congress allocates a certain amount of research dollars through the Farm Bill. The bill is set for reauthorization in 2023, marking an opportunity to change the downward trend of agriculture research funding.

“I have not seen any indications that that is going to be changing soon,” said ISU professor Beattie, who has done some lobbying on Capitol Hill for more agricultural research funding.

Earlier this year, the Senate increased the research budgets for agencies including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The USDA, however, saw another budget decrease when accounting for inflation.

Iowa State University bacteriology professor Gwyn Beattie opens a freezer bank full of microbial cultures at ISU’s Advanced Teaching and Research Building. 11/18/2022 Photo by Katie Peikes
Federal funding has helped Iowa State University professor Gwyn Beattie purchase necessary equipment for her lab, like this industrial-style freezer that stores thousands of plant and bacteria samples. Katie Peikes / Harvest Public Media

That’s because agriculture research can be a tough sell, according to Gordon Merrick, a policy and programs manager with the Organic Farming Research Foundation, who also lobbies in Washington, D.C.

“Agricultural research especially is slow. It's methodical,” Merrick said. “There's no, like, crazy, cutting edge, new way to organically control bindweed that hits the airwaves.”

The lack of congressional support for agricultural research has Merrick worried about the field’s future.

“That really kind of operates as a disincentive for some younger people that are interested in the research space to go into agriculture research,” he said.

Agricultural research increases our understanding of food crops and, ultimately, ensures a stable food supply. That’s in everyone’s best interest, said Beattie, especially in the climate change era.

“The only way to have food security is to have enough knowledge and resources to continue to produce food, even in the face of adverse conditions,” she said.

Katie Peikes contributed to this story. This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.
Picture of Dana Cronin

Dana Cronin

Dana Cronin covers food and agriculture for Illinois Newsroom. Her work has reached both national and regional audiences through WILL's partnership with Harvest Public Media, an ag-focused Midwest reporting collaborative. Prior to Illinois Newsroom, she worked at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C. and for other member stations including KQED in San Francisco and 91.5 KRCC in Colorado Springs, CO. ➤ DCronin@illinois.edu@DanaHCronin

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