WASHINGTON – In testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee today, former American Soybean Association President and Nebraska farmer Steve Wellman called on Congress to renew American leadership in agricultural science, including full funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the flagship competitive grants program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wellman, who testified on behalf of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation (SoAR), reiterated to the committee that sufficient federal investment is essential if the United States is to continue to be a global leader in agriculture, and noted that the ancestry of virtually every topic discussed in the Farm Bill can be traced to research.
“Traditionally, we have thought of agriculture science in terms of improving yields, preventing soil erosion, and adapting crops to a variety of growing conditions. Today, agriculture stands to realize significant gains through interdisciplinary research across numerous scientific fields, including data science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, biologicals and genomics,” said Wellman. “To capitalize on these relatively modern fields of science we need to ensure we have a modern federal research enterprise.”
Wellman pointed to the current lack of sufficient funding for research initiatives including AFRI, despite authorizations to fund these programs in the nation’s farm legislation, and compared funding for agricultural research to other areas within the government. “The 2008 Farm Bill authorized AFRI at $700 million dollars annually, yet today funding has reached only the halfway point of that level,” he said. “As a percentage of total federal research investment, USDA has fallen to less than three percent of the annual federal investment. Put another way, research funding for other federal agencies is nearly $60 billion dollars. Research funding at the USDA Research mission area tops out at just over $2 billion, which is an amount that has remained virtually unchanged for decades.”
Wellman spoke of the specific application of agricultural research on his operation in Southeast Nebraska, where he raises soybeans, corn, alfalfa, winter wheat and a cow-calf herd. “With the data and analytics available for purchase today, I can manage my input costs more effectively and affordably. Farmers today can receive a field script prescribing which varieties to plant, at what time on which field and more precisely measure the right type of inputs to apply to fields to maximize yields. All made possible with science,” he said. “We can always use more science to improve growing season forecasts, produce hardier plants, and examine how to manage too much water or not enough.”
Wellman closed by underscoring that while the U.S. may neglect to adequately fund research, our competitors do not. “China, Brazil and, increasingly, Europe are investing at a double-digit pace. China now spends more on government agriculture research and development than the U.S. and funding rates for agriculture research grant proposals in many EU countries are nearing 40 percent,” he said.