- Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor. Follow him @brent_willett.
‘Without food…all other components of social justice are meaningless.’ – Dr. Norman Borlaug
Ask yourself whether you believe the United States is the world’s leader in agricultural research and innovation. We have to be, right? For a country that produces and exports more food than any other, a nation that has engineered historically consequential breakthrough technologies like genetically modified crops, the answer would seem to be obvious. We’re tops when it comes to ag research, yes?
In 2009, China surpassed the United States as the global leader in public spending on agricultural research, and they haven’t looked back. In fact, China is expected to surpass the U.S. in total sovereign R&D funding by 2020. The Chinese achieved this staggering coup by tripling their investment in ag research over the course of five years. Brazil and India have both dramatically increased their spending in the field, and other countries are following suit. Meanwhile, U.S. investments in ag research are down 16 percent in ten years.
This crisis of global leadership on the part of the U.S. was brought into stark relief recently -- if unintentionally -- when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton released her policy paper on rural economic development, “Plan for a Vibrant Rural America”. In it, Clinton advocates ‘strengthen[ing] USDA grant programs'. What’s missing in the paper -- and, more importantly, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign as a whole -- is a broader acknowledgement of enormous importance of federal investment in agricultural research and innovation in America and who’s got a plan to ensure our country can return to the forefront of ag innovation in the coming decades.
For every federal dollar spent on agricultural research in the U.S., nearly $13 is spent on medical research. The USDA’s research budget is just shy of $2.4 billion. The National Institute for Health’s is more than $30 billion. From 1990 to 2012, NIH research funding rose 132 percent. National Science Foundation funding doubled in the same time period. In those same two decades, USDA saw an increase of just 21 percent and its R&D budget today amounts to less than 10 percent of National Institutes of Health’s (NIH).
Of course, the work of the NIH and the National Science Foundation is incredibly important and they deserve every resource available. But a global population increase which will see 9.5 billion people on earth by 2050 demands that we produce more food in the next 35 years than we have in the last 10,000 combined. Shouldn’t we be talking about how the U.S. can and must again be the global center of innovation to meet these challenges?
The Clinton proposal comes on the heels of a report issued by the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation titled ‘Pursuing a Unifying Message’, which summarizes an April 2015 discussion among 23 leaders of universities others on the need for reversing an alarming lack of federal investment in food, agricultural and natural resources research. The report calls for investments in agricultural research to be ‘escalated tremendously’ at U.S.D.A. and suggests in sobering fashion that ‘[s]ome nonprofit entities…appear to be funding applied and basic science in food and agriculture at more aggressive levels than the nation’s investment [my emphasis].’
Come again? NGAs alone are outpacing the world’s most advanced economy in terms of funding allocations for food research? What year is this? Next to defense, fewer responsibilities are more fundamental to a nation-state than its investment in and capability to feed its people today and in the future. Guns and butter indeed.
The enormous projected global population faces the threat of an inadequate food supply thanks in part to diminishing land and water resources. The amount of farmland available to feed each global citizen will degrade from more than an acre per person in 1990 to less than a third of an acre by 2050 and fully half of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity inside 30 years. Half.
Global food supply is further imperiled by climate change; science-based evidence is indisputable that our planet’s climate is changing and climate change has already begun to affect crop outcomes in parts of the world.
We know that at the solution’s nexus of the massive challenges mankind faces in the next 50 years -- namely nutrition, energy and environmental sustainability in the face of a burgeoning global population -- is agricultural innovation. Crucially, agricultural and food innovation has historically and necessarily had a dancing partner in the federal government based on the high capital intensity and prolonged nature of much of the field’s research.
National governments will persist as partners in the field and will contribute to solving a pending food crisis which Iowa State University President Steven Leath has called the ‘greatest challenge in human history’. The question is whether the United States is one of those governments.
Three years ago, the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology recommended increasing federal agricultural research by $700 million. Almost nothing happened. The 2014 Farm Bill offered a pittance, just $200 million [which must be matched by other funds to be released] in increased funding. Talk about cognitive dissonance.
In May, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recommended that the U.S. double its investment in agricultural and food research in ten years. This is an exceptionally important recommendation to Iowa. Since I’m supposed to be blogging about regional economic development and need to get back in my lane a bit, countless studies suggest that for every dollar spent on agricultural research, more than $20 in economic activity is created.
On October 14-16, the peerless World Food Prize Foundation brought leaders from around the globe to Des Moines to its Borlaug Dialogue to discuss food security and technology and to honor another deserving World Food Prize Laureate in Sir Fazle Hasan Abed of Bangladesh.
The Dialogue, of course, is held in honor of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the man credited with saving a billion lives thanks to his pioneering research in plant genetics. This celebration of one of the most important men in world history and a model for future change agents compels us each year to consider the future.
In the face of unnerving statistics about our country’s anemic and in-reverse investment in agricultural research, we must ask: will the next Norman Borlaug change the world from a lab in Iowa, or from one in Beijing?
 Iowa State University is a lead issuer of the report along with the Riley Foundation. Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, Dean of the ISU College of Agriculture, was a key contributor to the report.
Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor. Contact him: