Three Reasons Congress Should Support a Budget Increase for Organic Agriculture Research

Recent headlines about the US Department of Agriculture’s leadership and scientific integrity have been troubling, as have indications that the Trump administration intends to cut budgets for agriculture and climate research. and science more generally. But today, there is rare good news: a bipartisan The trio in Congress introduced legislation that would benefit just about everyone — farmers and consumers, scientists and food system actors, rural and urban Americans. Not only that, but the new bill promises to achieve these results while maintaining a tight budget.

Organic dairy farmers need sound science to be able to make informed decisions about forage production for their herds. In this on-farm demonstration at Chuck Johnson Farm in Philadelphia, Tennessee, Dr. Gina Pighetti and her research team from the University of Tennessee and the University of Kentucky grow organic purple clover (right) and wheat to develop best management practices that will help farmers make production decisions. Source: University of Tennessee.

Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) sponsor the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017, which calls for increased mandatory funding for a small but crucial USDA research. program, the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI). Congress only allocated $20 million a year for this program in the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, but this small investment has spread across the country with grants awarded in more than half of all States. The new bill proposes to increase this investment to $50 million per year in future years.

While a $30 million increase to a $20 million program may seem like a lot, it should be noted that these numbers are small compared to other programs. For example, the USDA recently announced that its flagship research program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), will receive $425 million this year (more good news, by the way). And many R&D programs at other agencies have much higher awards (for example, the NIH will receive $34 billion this year). But the return on investment from agricultural research and investment is very high, so this increase could do a lot of good.

UC Davis students, under the guidance of plant science professor Charles Brummer, examine their crop of “jalapeño popper”, a cross between a bell pepper and a jalapeño pepper. This public plant breeding pipeline supports organic farming systems by designing new vegetable and bean cultivars with the particular needs of the organic farming community in mind. Source: UC Davis.

While there are many reasons why we are excited about a possible budget increase for the Biological Research Outreach Initiative (OREI), I will highlight just three:

1) We need more agroecologically inspired research. More than 450 scientists from all 50 states have signed our expert statement calling for increased public support for agroecological research, which is urgently needed to address current and future agricultural challenges that affect human health, the environment and urban and rural communities. This call builds on the successes of agroecology in finding ways to work with nature rather than against it, to produce nutritious food while improving soil health, protecting our drinking water, and more. Unfortunately, the decline in overall support for public agricultural research is particularly problematic for agroecology, as such research tends to reduce farmers’ dependence on purchased inputs, meaning that gaps are unlikely to financing are met by the private sector. Thus, programs that direct more public funding towards agroecological research and practice are particularly needed, and OREI is one of them.

2) When it comes to agroecology, this program is a rock star. OREI funds some of the most effective federal agricultural research, particularly around environmentally friendly practices that can protect our natural resources and maintain farmers’ profits. One of the strengths of the program is that it emphasizes multidisciplinary research; according to the USDA, “priority concerns include the biological, physical, and social sciences, including economics,” an approach that can help ensure that research leads to agricultural practices that are both practical and scalable. Importantly, this program also targets projects that “will help farmers and ranchers plan their whole operation by providing practical information”, ensuring that the research directly and immediately benefits those who most need. But it’s not just the description of the program that leads us to believe it’s a solid investment. In fact, our own research on competitive USDA grants found OREI to be one of the most important programs for advancing agroecology. And this in-depth analysis of USDA organic research programs by the Organic Farming Research Foundation further underscored the vital importance of OREI.

3) Researching programs like OREI can benefit all farmers, while focusing on the practices required for a critical and growing sector of U.S. agriculture. The OREI program is designed to support organic farms in the first place by funding research conducted on land that is certified organic or transitioning to organic certification. However, OREI’s research can also benefit a much wider group of farmers, as these results are relevant to farmers of different scales and styles of farming, organic or not. Of course, directing funds to support organic farmers makes perfect sense, since this sector of agriculture is growing rapidly and maintaining high premiums that benefit farmers. But it is important to recognize that the benefits of research extend far beyond the organic farming community.

For all the reasons listed above, this bill is an important step in the right direction.. It is essential that the next Farm Bill increase support for science-based programs that will ensure the long-term viability of farm operations while regenerating natural resources and protecting our environment. The expansion of OREI is a smart way forward.

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