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
TEXT SIZE - +

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

Analysts Warn of Regional Proxy Conflict in Afghanistan

Analysts warn if Kabul’s neighbors do not start to cooperate, competing desires for influence could deteriorate into a bloody proxy war in the country More

Saudi Intelligence Chief Replaced

Bandar bin Sultan came under criticism for supporting al Qaida, prompting King Abdallah to wrest Syria operations away from him in February, handing them to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef More

Poetry Magazine editor Don Share talks what makes a good poem with VOA's David Byrd

What makes a good poem? And is poetry as viable an art form as it once was? To find out, VOA's David Byrd spoke to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine. 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.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid