With the federal budget deficit approaching $1.3 trillion, Congress needs to take a hard look at every government program to make sure that the taxpayers are getting real value for their hard-earned dollars.

But there’s one federal investment — agricultural research — that reaps returns by promoting economic growth, addressing urgent national and international problems, and attracting young people to fields where their talents are sorely needed and their contributions will be well-rewarded.

Because funding has been virtually frozen in recent years, relatively small increases in the nation’s investment can kick-start a new era of innovation in this important field.

Agricultural research boosts an industry that remains one of our economy’s powerhouses.

While most Americans may pay little attention to where their food comes from, agriculture is one of the nation’s largest employers, with more than 2 million farmers and some 19 million people in allied industries.

While the nation’s trade deficit increased to $46.3 billion in August, the United States continued to be a net exporter in agriculture, with the industry running a $1.8 billion trade surplus.

In one indication of the industry’s vitality, the nation’s more than 2,500 farmer-owned cooperatives contribute more than $190 billion to the economy, including a total payroll of at least $8 billion that supports more than 250,000 jobs. Especially during a downturn that has hit hard at Rural America, these farm cooperatives offer an economic lifeline to countless communities.

While spurring a crucial sector of the economy, agricultural research also promotes solutions for many of the nation’s most pressing problems. Most Americans may not think of childhood obesity, environmental stewardship, energy security or even food safety as agricultural issues. But, by finding new ways to encourage healthy diets, produce and use bio-fuels, and improve safety practices in processing plants and restaurants, agricultural research is indispensable to solving these problems.

Urgent as they are, Americans’ agricultural challenges pale in comparison to world hunger. Nothing describes the dimensions of this crisis as starkly as these inescapable facts: Currently, the world’s population is about 6 billion, with an estimated 1 billion people living in poverty and enduring chronic hunger. Over the next 30 to 40 years, the world’s population is expected to grow by about 50 percent.

But few experts expect the world’s capacity to produce and use food to increase at a comparable rate, unless agricultural research finds new ways to meet the needs of this growing population while using about the same amount of land and limited inputs of water, fertilization and chemicals.

With the world’s most advanced agriculture, it is critically important that the United States conduct the research that can improve agricultural productivity in energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable, and economically feasible ways.

The alternatives to more knowledge are nightmarish: famines, terrorism, and wars fought over food and water.

In spite of these great domestic and international needs, agricultural research remains a budgetary stepchild. Federal funding increased from a little above $1.3 billion in 1998 to slightly more than $2 billion in 2003. But, since 2005, funding has flat-lined at about $2.1 billion. Thus, the Department of Agriculture reports that its Agricultural Food and Research Initiative rejected more than 80 percent of the meritorious research proposals it received in 2006 and 78 percent in 2007.

As it grapples with economic policy and budgetary priorities, Congress should support a long-overdue increase in agricultural research at the nation’s public land-grant universities. These uniquely American educational institutions conduct trailblazing research and disseminate the results through the agricultural Extension service to farmers, allied industries, and the general public.

At a time when only 3.7 percent of the undergraduates at U.S. colleges are majoring in agricultural studies and related career fields, an increase in research funding will also serve the public purpose of encouraging young people to enter professions that are essential to growing the economy and feeding a hungry humanity.

A skilled workforce. Economic growth. Environmental sustainability. A more stable world. These are among the rewards that the nation will reap by investing in agricultural research. What better investment could be made in America’s future?

Chuck Conner is president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.