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An Ample Harvest for Agricultural Research in Farm Bill

4 February 2014 6:15 pm
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Research into specialty crops, including grapes, will flourish thanks to the new farm bill. Here, geneticist Mallikarjuna Aradhya examines a cultivar at the USDA grape genebank in Davis, California.

Peggy Greb/USDA

No whining. Research into specialty crops, including grapes, will flourish thanks to the new farm bill. Here, geneticist Mallikarjuna Aradhya examines a cultivar at the USDA grape genebank in Davis, California.

Food and agricultural research advocates are celebrating today’s passage by the U.S. Senate of the long-delayed “Farm Bill.” It provides $512 million for science over 5 years and kick starts new fundraising for research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The bill, which the House of Representatives approved last week, now heads to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.

“I’m really pleased and excited,” says Tom Van Arsdall, who heads the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research in Washington, D.C. “We appreciate how tight money is.” Aspects of the $956 billion bill are controversial. It cuts nutritional benefits for the poor and some subsidies to farmers. There’s also some political heat in the research arena: Some advocates are upset about what they see as an unfair bid by state land-grant universities to get an advantage in competitive grants.

The farm bill is especially important because it provides so-called mandatory funding, which does not have to be approved by Congress each fiscal year. On an annual basis, the new Farm Bill provides 3.8% less funding than its predecessor. There are, however, clear winners and losers.

The bulk of the research funding in the bill, $400 million, goes to what are known as specialty crops, including fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Although many kinds of crops are included in this category, lawmakers stipulated that nearly one-third of this funding must be spent on addressing citrus diseases. Money for organic farming research and outreach also increases, to $100 million. Biofuels and bioproducts research was slashed.

As a new way to raise funds for research, the bill creates a nonprofit Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, modeled on similar charities that benefit the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The independent foundation will get up to $200 million in federal funds, to be matched by outside donations. “The foundation is the biggest win for us in the farm bill,” says Karl Anderson, director of government relations for the “tri-societies”—the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America. “It’s an exciting new opportunity.”

The bill also includes a controversial policy provision regarding competitive grants awarded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Applicants will be required to show that they can provide matching funds from their institutions when applying for NIFA grants. This is an unusual requirement, says Bethany Johns of the tri-societies. But what rankles some stakeholders is an exemption for land-grant universities. (The secretary of USDA can also waive the rule for grants judged to be a national priority.)

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, on their blog, calls it “a discriminatory provision to prohibit federal and state agencies, private labs, and NGOs from even applying for certain competitive grants. This is part of a worrisome trend of land grant universities and colleges trying to exclude others.”

“If we’re trying to support basic research in agriculture, then we can’t be having these caveats,” Johns says. “You fund the best science.”

Ian Maw, of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C., says many kinds of USDA grants already required matching funds, but not competitive grants. To standardize practices, Congress extended the matching requirement to competitive research grants, but then waived the requirement for land grants. That is an advantage, he conceeds, but notes that other institutions can avoid the matching requirement simply by partnering with a land grant.

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