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

Photogallery Early Nigeria Results Show Buhari Leading; Tampering Concerns Mount

One local group monitoring polls is concerned politicians might use security agencies to 'fiddle with the election collation process' at state level More

UN: 7,300 Civilians Killed in Boko Haram Insurgency

A senior UN humanitarian official tells the United Nations Security Council 1,000 people have been killed this year More

Turkish President Warns Iran About Trying to Dominate Middle East

Warning comes amid growing concerns inside Turkey that it will be sucked into a sectarian conflict with its neighbor 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.
Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadistsi
X
Greg Flakus
March 30, 2015 6:48 PM
At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video With Coalition Airstrikes, Iraq Entering 'Last Page' of IS Battle

American warplanes joined Iraq's battle against the so-called 'Islamic State' in northern Iraq late Wednesday, as Iraqi ground troops launched a massive assault on Tikrit. Analysts say the offensive could take the coalition a step further towards Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State forces. Others say it could also deepen already-dangerous sectarian tensions in the region. VOA's Heather Murdock has more from Cairo.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Hi-tech Motorbike Helmet's Goal: Improve Road Safety

In cities with heavily congested traffic, people can get around much faster on a motorcycle than in a car. But a rider who is not sure of his route may have to stop to look at the map or consult a GPS. A Russian start-up company is working to make navigation easier for motorcyclists. Designers at Moscow-based LiveMap are developing a smart helmet with a built-in navigation system, head-mounted display and voice recognition. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video DOJ: Illinois National Guard Soldier Tried to Join ISIS

U.S. federal law enforcement agents arrested two suburban Chicago men accused of trying to join ISIS overseas, while also plotting attacks in the United States. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, one of those arrested is a soldier of the Illinois National Guard.
Video

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Traditional push-rim wheelchairs create a lot of stress for arm, shoulder and neck muscles and joints. A redesigned chair, based on readily available bicycle technology, radically increases mobility while reducing the physical effort. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More