News / USA

US Budget Fight Threatens World Food Security

Agriculture research could be casualty in debate over borrowing limit

Wheat researcher at work in a greenhouse at Kansas State University.
Wheat researcher at work in a greenhouse at Kansas State University.

Multimedia

Audio

Despite wavering global food security, agriculture research could be a casualty in the debate over the U.S. borrowing limit, the latest battleground for advocates demanding deep federal spending cuts.

However, in an unusual twist, the American Enterprise Institute - a leading conservative group - is calling for increased funding for agricultural research to help control soaring food prices. That stands in stark contrast to AEI's other recommendations for farm programs: cut crop subsidies; cut ethanol subsidies; cut crop insurance programs.

In a recommendation he co-wrote for AEI, University of Minnesota economist Phil Pardey says the government should be spending much more - not less - on agricultural research and development.

Slow growth

The threat of more budget cuts comes at a time when yields for major U.S. crops such as wheat, maize, rice and soybeans are dwindling . From the 1950s to the 90s, American harvests grew slowly but steadily, by about two percent each year on average. After 1990, that rate of increase fell by nearly half, says Pardey.

Experts say previous cuts in research and development funding have resulted in a decline in growth of US crop yields since 1990.
Experts say previous cuts in research and development funding have resulted in a decline in growth of US crop yields since 1990.

"For those of us who watch these things, that's a really big structural shift," Pardey says, adding the shift has big implications for today's food prices and for tomorrow's food security.

Demand for food from a growing population and the increasing production of biofuels has caught up with the slowing pace of farm productivity gains. With supplies tight, prices have skyrocketed.

Pardey says a big reason for today's high food prices is yesterday's budget cuts. "We've been ratcheting down the rates of growth of R&D spending for many decades here in the U.S."

R&D, research and development, is what scientists do to keep farm productivity growing. Federal R&D funding grew by about four percent per year through the 1950s and 60s. But the pace slowed in the following decades. By the 90s and 2000s it barely kept up with inflation. And Pardey says we're paying for that now.

"If you start slowing down the rate of growth of spending and start re-directing that funding to other things, then the seemingly inevitable consequence is what we're seeing in the data: that is, a slowdown in productivity growth."

Productivity growth needs to be speeding up in order to feed the nine billion people expected on the planet by 2050, Pardey says.

Bikram Gill runs a seed bank at Kansas State University which has supplied disease and insect resistance traits and other useful genes to wheat breeders around the world. This spring, Congress eliminated its funding.
Bikram Gill runs a seed bank at Kansas State University which has supplied disease and insect resistance traits and other useful genes to wheat breeders around the world. This spring, Congress eliminated its funding.

'Shooting ourselves in the foot'

The budget ax has already fallen on Bikram Gill's seed bank at Kansas State University, which holds thousands of varieties of wheat and its wild relatives from around the world.

Funding for the seed bank was cut this spring during an earlier congressional battle over the federal budget.

"What goes through my mind is, 'We are shooting ourselves in the foot,'" he says.

Every time a new threat  to wheat production - such as an insect outbreak or a new strain of  disease - emerges, researchers comb through Gill's collection for genes that will help them fight back.  According to Gill, one wild plant continues to assist U.S. wheat growers.  

"They are protected from leaf rust by genes derived from a goat grass collected in Iran," he says. "It's all well-documented."

Gill says the seed bank's million-dollar budget is a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefits it provides. But now he's scrambling to find new funding to keep from being shut down.

"This will be very damaging for the long-term improvement of wheat," he says.

Looming cuts

"It's a pretty hard sell to be asking for more money in this budget climate in Washington," says economist Pardey. "But what we're actually asking for is a re-direction of Farm Bill priorities."

However, the priorities of many in Washington lie elsewhere. Last month, Utah Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz proposed cutting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's in-house research budget by two-thirds.

He declined to be interviewed, but in a press release he explained that the country is over $14 trillion in debt, "It’s time for Washington to 'cut cut cut' and be more fiscally disciplined."

The proposal was soundly defeated on bipartisan lines. But few expect agriculture R&D to escape unscathed. Even Democratic President Barack Obama, who recently said, "We can't simply cut our way to prosperity," has proposed cutting the two main agriculture research funds by 8.5 percent.

You May Like

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid