As policymakers struggle to set federal funding priorities for the coming years and craft a new, five-year farm bill, wheat researchers, farmers, millers and bakers are on Capitol Hill together, pressing the importance of long-term and stable agriculture research funding.
Nearly 30 stakeholders from every region of the country are in town this week for the wheat industry’s annual fly-in focusing on innovation in the public sector, which continues to produce the vast majority of new wheat varieties adapted to the challenges farmers face.
In a time of deep uncertainty at the federal level, the wheat representatives are educating policymakers about the process of developing new and better wheat plants, which can easily take 10 years per variety.
The annual event is sponsored by the National Wheat Improvement Committee (NWIC), a group of wheat scientists and stakeholders, and the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and put on in conjunction with the North American Millers’ Association and the American Bakers Association.
Fly-in participants are telling their own stories about the impact of crop research on their sector and specifically asking Members of Congress to support the Obama Administration’s FY2014 request of $1.124 billion for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and $383 million in funding for USDA’s premier competitive grant programs, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).
Despite demonstrated return on investment of up to $32 to $1, just 1.6 percent of the $142 billion annual federal investment in research goes to agriculture research, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Even in a time of increased private investment, wheat research is primarily done within ARS, through AFRI grants and at land-grant universities around the country that also get funding from state governments and wheat growers directly. Public programs are uniquely suited to address the basic questions all plant scientists need answered and to operationalize research into locally-adapted wheat varieties.
“The conundrum we find ourselves in is that rapidly evolving and emerging pests and a growing population will not wait for better days ahead financially," said Dr. Brett Carver, the head of the wheat improvement team at Oklahoma State University and the chairman of NWIC.
“The problems are now, and the solutions are as pressing on wheat scientists as ever before. The U.S. wheat research community has performed well at keeping up; catching up is an entirely different game, but one we increasingly have to play.”
With a new farm bill still on the horizon, participants are also reminding Members of Congress of the importance of the legislation’s research title, which authorizes AFRI and the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative (USWBSI), a public-private-federal research collaboration that is a model for other such partnerships within the industry.
“Nobody believes that the way the federal government is operating right now is healthy or encouraging economic growth. All industries and sectors benefit from certainty,” said Bing Von Bergen, NAWG president and a wheat farmer from Moccasin, Mont.
“With research, though, the impact of cuts today won’t just last until a program is restructured or funding is found elsewhere. Programs will cease to exist, scientists will move on to other specialties, and we will have very serious problems developing and cultivating healthy crops for decades to come. These expenditures truly are investments in our nation’s future that need to be made.”
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