Congress Looks for Donors to Boost Agricultural Science
Working under tight budget constraints, a Senate committee has proposed chartering a foundation that would raise funds to support agricultural research. But its draft of the Farm Bill, which sets food and agricultural policy and funding, is less generous: The $348 million of research appropriated over 5 years by the 2008 Farm Bill would be cut to $200 million in the new legislation.
The current bill, which authorizes $283 billion over 5 years for direct subsidies to farmers, food stamp programs, and other programs, expires at the end of September. Last fall, leaders of the agriculture committees in the House of Representatives and Senate agreed to cut spending in the next bill by $23 billion over 10 years as part of efforts to reduce the national debt. Last month, the House Agriculture Committee proposed a cut of $33 billion.
The Senate version of the Farm Bill was introduced on Friday by senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the agriculture, nutrition, and forestry panel, and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-KS). It would achieve most of the savings by changing farmer subsidies and food stamps, but research would also be curtailed. The bill zeroes out a $118 million initiative for biofuels research, for example, and reduces the size of a program for research on fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops from $230 million a year to $200 million.
The tough times are no surprise to advocates for agricultural research. Taking a page from biomedical research, they lobbied Congress to charter a nonprofit foundation and authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to accept funding from it. "We need to find ways to stimulate investment in food and agriculture and this helps accomplish that," says plant biologist Roger Beachy of the Washington University in St. Louis, the former director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The model is the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, which has raised more than $560 million over the last 15 years. The Senate would prime the pump of the new Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research with $100 million of matching funds that it could use to attract donors. "It's important to have federal dollars in the game as a match," says Thomas Van Arsdall, director of the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research. The Senate agriculture panel will begin marking up the bill tomorrow.