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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Researcher: Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor at Symposium on Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome says problem involves more than calorie intake, warns of worldwide health impact 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.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs