States rapidly disinvesting in ag schools | TSLN.com

States rapidly disinvesting in ag schools

Marcia Zarley

WASHINGTON (DTN) – The combination of potential budget cuts from state legislatures and Congress threatens to handicap U.S. agriculture’s ability to double food production within 40 years and simultaneously protect the environment, leaders of land grant universities told a Farm Foundation Forum Tuesday, April 12.

Funding for California’s public university system alone has plunged 40 percent since 1990 and faces a possible $500 million to $1 billion drop in state support for the school year starting this fall. Cuts on that scale – added to more than $1 billion in funding cuts for the 10 University of California campuses in recent years – pose very serious challenges to tuition, academic programs and the ability of agricultural colleges to underwrite research that has been the building block of farm productivity. Budget austerity programs in Arizona are even more severe.

“We see states disinvesting in higher education and research all across the nation,” said Dan Dooley, vice president of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California. “Left to our own devices, I’m confident agriculture will meet the world’s demand for food by 2050,” he added, but the question is at what cost to rain forests and natural habitat.

Given the scale of budget cuts pending before Congress and state legislatures, “Anyone who believes major changes aren’t ahead for agriculture is living in a dream world,” said former Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm. This week’s latest budget agreement in Congress eliminates all research earmarks and recalls $230 million budgeted for research buildings that had not yet been spent this fiscal year, he said.

The research budget also cuts $126 million from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and $44 million in salaries and staff at the Agricultural Research Service.

“Federal funding is at an all-time high now. Any increase in money for ag research will have to come from other sources,” Stenholm said.

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For nearly a century, public research has been critical to boosting agriculture’s productivity. Since 1980, California cotton yields have grown from an average of 1.75 bales per acre to more than 4 bales per acre. In the past decade, the state’s farmers cut water use for crops 60 percent but boosted crop values 300 percent, largely by shifting the kinds of crops they grow with scarce water, Dooley said.

The ability to do more with fewer resources and a lower environmental footprint is what society demands of agriculture in the future, Dooley stressed. Besides extra food demand as the world’s population increases by 2 million people by 2050, 1.4 billion people live in poverty worldwide, 25 percent of the world’s children are malnourished and one out of every six people are without clean water. “There are moral imperatives” for solving these problems, Dooley said.

George Norton, an economist at Virginia Tech, estimated that returns on public investment in ag research run 20-80 percent, “so you do get bang for your buck.” But the intangible benefit is that the world gains “national security through better food security.”

Lack of funding will ultimately lead to higher food prices here and abroad, political instability and challenges for the competitiveness of U.S. farm products, he said.

Noting that President Lincoln endowed the land grant university system in 1862 – in the midst of paying for the Civil War – Dooley said the nation still could choose “to do big things in difficult times.” He urged champions of land grant universities to build a national strategy for higher education and a more reliable funding system for research.

So far, private sources of financing – such as farmer checkoff funds and agricultural corporations – have supported public research at a “pitifully low level,” Dooley added. Groups like the one administering the almond checkoff have even offered to finance staff positions at the university. But of the $175 million in research contracts in the University of California system each year, only $12 million comes from private sources, Dooley said. In contrast, Silicon Valley donates “hundreds of millions of dollars” for university research each year, even though the technology industry is about the same size as agriculture in value.

The semiconductor industry association alone spent $178 million on public research in the past five years, Dooley said. “Personally, I feel farmers have every reason to care (about the lapses in research funding) as anybody.”

For copies of a recent Council for Agricultural Science and Technology report on the future of public research, go to http://www.cast-science.org.

Audio files of the Farm Foundation’s forum are available at http://www.farmfoundation.org.

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