Rush Holt | David Sharpe
AAAS has commended the Obama administration for proposing to increase funding for agricultural research, a step specialists consider essential for helping to provide more and better food sources for a growing world population.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on 3 Feb. that the White House will request a doubling of funding for competitive grants under the department’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) in the president’s FY 2017 budget, to be released next week.
Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, said the news “is a positive step to strengthening agricultural research.” He added, “For almost a decade, agricultural research and development (R&D) was an example of how neglect can undermine a scientific domain. Fortunately both Congress in the recent omnibus and now the White House recognize that the agricultural research enterprise plays a critical role in supporting food safety, nutrition, and energy security.”
The USDA said the president’s budget will ask Congress to invest a total of $700 million for the AFRI initiative, the fully authorized funding level established by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill. According to USDA, the initiative has mounted efforts to improve and sustain rural economic growth, address water availability issues, increase food production, find new sources of energy, mitigate the impacts of climate variability, enhance resiliency of our food systems, and ensure food safety.
The USDA announcement also said that, through existing AFRI funding, $30.1 million in grants will be awarded to fund 80 projects at universities, research institutes, and laboratories across the nation. “These grants address crucial issues facing agricultural producers, consumers, and researchers such as food safety and quality, nutrients in plants, plant growth, and antimicrobial resistance strategies,” according to USDA.
While research in agriculture constituted 40 percent of federal R&D spending in the 1940s, today it is only 2 percent. Estimates show that by 2050 the world population will be more than 9 billion and this growth will occur primarily in areas of the world already experiencing food scarcity and water availability issues, as Steven Leath, plant scientist and president of Iowa State University, noted in a lecture last year at AAAS.
In an op-ed last month in the The New York Times, Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp of MIT, a past AAAS president, and Alan I. Leshner, AAAS CEO emeritus, urged more robust funding for the AFRI program as one means to promote a new green revolution. “The potential is great, but the program has never been fully funded,” Sharp and Leshner wrote. “Despite a $25 million increase in the omnibus budget agreement, the budget of the department’s research initiative sits at half of what Congress authorized in 2008 when it created the program. In the 2014 fiscal year, the program’s peer-review process identified approximately $1.1 billion in grants as worthy of funding, but the program could dispense only $270 million. We cannot kindle the next green revolution if we treat roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars in worthwhile scientific ideas as if they were table scraps.”
Holt said he hopes the requested increase for AFRI reflects the administration’s intention to seek increased spending across all federal R&D agencies. “We look forward to the release of the FY 2017 R&D budget next week,” Holt said, “and hope that the budgets for all R&D agencies reflect the aspirational goals of a nation that recognizes the instrumental role that R&D plays in our innovation ecosystem.”