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Research Woes: Ag research has obstacles

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Aug. 30. 2012 - Whether its eradicating a crop pest like the boll weevil or developing a product that absorbs 200 times its weight in water, agriculture researchers have helped make American agriculture the envy of the world. That continues to be the case, but funding for agriculture research has leveled off in the last 30 years, while other countries, most notably China and Brazil, now spend more public money on agriculture research than the United States.

That troubles Dan Upchurch, Southern Plains Area Director for the USDA's Agriculture Research Service (ARS). Upchurch, who is based in College Station, notes that these trends are occurring at a time when a booming world population is expected to increase demand for agriculture products -- food -- from 70 to 100 percent by 2050.

"By 2050, we will have to double the world's food supply," Upchurch said. "That's mind-boggling when you think about it."

Studies on the value of agriculture research in this country have found returns of 40 to 60 percent on every dollar spent but a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) found that public investment in agriculture had declined and, along with it, the growth of agriculture productivity. "The rate of investment growth has slowed from 3.63 percent a year (after inflation) during 1950-69 to 1.79 percent from 1970-89 and to 0.94 percent from 1990 to 2009," the study noted. At the same time, according to the same study, agriculture productivity growth has slowed to less than 1.2 percent per year.

"Spending has been effectively flat since 1990," Upchurch said. "In real dollars -- not adjusted for inflation -- spending has been literally flat for nearly 10 years."

Craig Nessler, director of Texas AgriLife Research, said that research there has been hit with a double whammy. First, funding has been reduced in an effort to balance the state budget. Earmarks, which often provided the seed money for research projects, were eliminated. He said that AgriLife is now looking to the private sector to help fund its research projects.

"We're fortunate that Texas A&M and AgriLife have been recognized by industry for doing very important work," Nessler said. "We're participating with a number of companies to take up some of the slack. This is research into products and technologies that can be used in Texas and across the country. We are very careful to make sure we're not selling science to the highest bidder."

Upchurch said that many of the most valuable ARS research projects revealed their value over a long period of time. He cited the development in 1976 of a product known as Super Slurper, so named because it absorbs 2,000 times its own weight in water, and which now has thousands of applications. Since it is a polymer derived from corn, it has greatly increased the market for corn. The Super Slurper turned out to be one of the most commercially successful ARS patents ever.

Upchurch also cited research by ARS scientists Mike White, Daren Harmel and others at the Blackland Research and Extension Center in Temple that resulted in a tool used by the State Soil and Water Conservation Board to manage nutrients and water quality in Texas. Called the Texas BMP (Best Management Practices) Evaluation Tool (TBET), it is a simulation model that provides producers with "what if" scenarios in regard to their soils.

Harmel said that TBET is valuable in that it shows exactly what benefits the model's users are getting from their management practices.

"It allows the state to take credit for its accomplishments. They (users and state officials) can actually see what they're getting out of it," he said.

Upchurch said that TBET results have been impressive.

"It's been applied to 183,000 acres in Texas and it's estimated to have removed 300,000 pounds of nitrogen, 61,000 pounds of phosphorous and 21 tons of sediment from Texas waterways," he said. "That's a tremendous return on investment for just one tool, for one natural resource. The benefits it provides to farmers and society is enormous."

Nessler said it's easier to do research with private companies than it used to be because genomics and genetic markers make it much easier to screen plants and seeds for the traits they are looking for without conducting lengthy research only to find that a variety doesn't have the right genetics for the project.

"We're excited about applying some of these tools to livestock breeding, too," he said. "They haven't been used in beef cattle as much as they could be, and we're working with people in animal sciences and veterinary sciences to use these tools with livestock."

Texas AgriLife Extension and Research have a long list of successful projects under their collective belts, dating back to the days of Texas fever in cattle and the recent boll weevil eradication program. Nessler cited the development of hybrid sorghum, module cotton collectors that keep untold pounds of cotton from flying out from cotton trailers, and water purification technologies as some recent examples of research that has paid big dividends not just to farmers but, ultimately, to society.

"Texas varieties of wheat are being grown in the most productive wheat growing regions of the country," he said. "Texas varieties are number one in Kansas, which is a tribute to the scientists here who developed them."

AgriLife Research is also involved with the development of non-food sources of biofuels like algae. Nessler said the scientific research is balanced with economic research to make sure the products are not only functional but profitable.

"We don't want to lead anybody down the garden path," he said. "We have to be able to demonstrate the value."

While U.S. spending on agriculture research has been stagnant, China and Brazil have greatly increased spending in the same area. China has committed $47 billion to agriculture research and development over the next 10 years. The ARS and the National Institute of Food Agriculture (NIFA) operate on about $2 billion annually, Upchurch said. Brazil, with a fraction of the population of the U.S., has allocated $2.6 billion a year to agriculture research. Upchurch has mixed feelings about this.

"It hurts from a national pride standpoint," Upchurch said. "It bothers me that smaller, developing nations are outspending us. That has implications on a global scale. On the one hand, I'm glad that investments are being made in agriculture around the world, but I wonder if it will place us at a competitive disadvantage. "

Upchurch said that agriculture and research related to it has been so successful in this country that he thinks society is often complacent about it.

"We're so effective that we've become a victim of our success," he said. "Farmers know this, but I'd like to see commodity and producer groups talking to civic clubs about the risks we've faced and how we overcame them with research and how that research has helped give us safest, most abundant and affordable food supply in the world."

"A wise man once told me that agriculture is the only essential industry," Nessler added. "The producers and the people who raise food and fiber make everything else in society possible. It couldn't be any more important."


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