By Dana Cronin — Special to Harvest Public MediaPublished December 19, 2022 at 7:17 AM CST
Federally funded agricultural research has made the U.S. into the commodity crop powerhouse it is today. Innovations like better seed varieties, genetic enhancements in livestock and advanced machinery have helped triple food production in the U.S. over the last 70 years.
And yet, the federal government’s investment in agriculture research has declined by a third over the past two decades.
That could spell trouble for an industry grappling with the effects of climate change and an increasing world population. Agricultural groups and industry leaders are warning now is not the time to cut back funding.
“We're going to have less arable land, less available water in the future,” said Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford at a recent public event. “And at the same time, the population is set to go to nine and a half or ten billion. By 2050, we have to produce more food than the last five thousand years combined.”
Continuous funding for agriculture research is the only way we’ll meet that demand, Ford added.
An inside look
There are thousands of people across the U.S. conducting all kinds of agricultural research, from crop resiliency to livestock health to weed suppression. And while the federal government funds most of that research, it’s non-government groups that are mostly conducting it. In fact, about 70% of agriculture research takes place at land grant universities.
Gwyn Beattie is one such researcher. She’s been a professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Iowa State University for nearly 30 years, and her research mostly focuses on plant health.
She recently received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study how certain crops, including soybeans, can better endure drought conditions.
“There's not a sustainable amount of available fresh water for agriculture everywhere, in the way we're going,” Beattie said. “So we really need plants that can thrive with less water.”
That type of research is becoming increasingly important in areas like the Midwest, where this year’s drought has decimated crop yields and forced many farmers to contend with potential irrigation limits. Those tough growing conditions are only expected to get worse as the climate continues to change. As a researcher, Beattie said that’s at the forefront of her mind.
“Climate change is something that I don't think any researcher cannot be thinking about as a central driver,” she said. And federal dollars are especially important “because they're on a magnitude that actually allows you to make multi-year progress with the research,” Beattie said.
But that funding is increasingly sparse. In 2019, federal funding for agricultural research totaled $5.16 billion. That’s a third lower than it was at its peak in 2002, when the government spent $7.64 billion on agricultural research.
Meanwhile, China has surpassed the U.S., becoming the world’s top funder of agricultural research. Brazil — a major U.S. competitor in agricultural exports — has also increased its funding over the past two decades.
The problem with private funding
While public funding for agricultural research has continued on its downward trajectory, private, corporate-funded research has shot up. In fact, some years, the amount of private funding from mega food and agriculture corporations like Bayer, PepsiCo and Syngenta has totaled more than double public funding.
Take Iowa State University, for example. The school has seen a 50% increase in company-funded research over just the last two years, according to Jim Reecy, associate vice president for research.
“Agriculture research funding has gone up more than any other area that we have for company-funded research,” Reecy said.
Regardless of who’s paying for it, Reecy said professors have full freedom to conduct their own research.
“We want to be seen as an unbiased source of information whether a company is paying for it or the federal government is paying for it,” he said.
Yet, some researchers worry the corporate funding model could skew the research agenda.
“(Corporations are) looking for ways that research can develop products — tangible, intangible — that people will spend money on that will increase their base of profit,” said Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, a director at American Farmland Trust.
She argues research is a public good, and it should be up to the federal government to fund it.
“[The federal government] has the public interest in mind more than any other entity and can take a broader view,” she said.
(For more, read Big Ag U, Harvest Public Media’s award-winning investigation into corporate agriculture funding at land grant universities in the Midwest.)
It’s up to Congress
Every five years, Congress allocates a certain amount of research dollars through the Farm Bill. The bill is set for reauthorization in 2023, marking an opportunity to change the downward trend of agriculture research funding.
“I have not seen any indications that that is going to be changing soon,” said ISU professor Beattie, who has done some lobbying on Capitol Hill for more agricultural research funding.
Earlier this year, the Senate increased the research budgets for agencies including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The USDA, however, saw another budget decrease when accounting for inflation.
That’s because agriculture research can be a tough sell, according to Gordon Merrick, a policy and programs manager with the Organic Farming Research Foundation, who also lobbies in Washington, D.C.
“Agricultural research especially is slow. It's methodical,” Merrick said. “There's no, like, crazy, cutting edge, new way to organically control bindweed that hits the airwaves.”
The lack of congressional support for agricultural research has Merrick worried about the field’s future.
“That really kind of operates as a disincentive for some younger people that are interested in the research space to go into agriculture research,” he said.
Agricultural research increases our understanding of food crops and, ultimately, ensures a stable food supply. That’s in everyone’s best interest, said Beattie, especially in the climate change era.
“The only way to have food security is to have enough knowledge and resources to continue to produce food, even in the face of adverse conditions,” she said.
The Iowa Bee Rule
Every spray season, pesticide applicators are faced with navigating pesticide applications around the Iowa Bee Rule.
In 2009, the current bee rule, replaced the code that was put in place in 1979. Below is the wording of the “Pesticide/Bee Rule” of the Iowa Administrative Code Chapter 21-45.31(206).
“45.31(1) Owners of apiaries, in order to protect their bees from pesticide applications, shall register the location of their apiaries with the state apiarist. Registration shall be on forms provided by the department. The registration expires December 31 each year and may be renewed the following year.
45.31(2) Between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., a commercial applicator shall not apply to blooming crops pesticides labeled as toxic to bees when the commercial applicator is located within one mile of a registered apiary.; A commercial applicator shall be responsible for maintaining the one-mile distance from apiaries that are registered and listed on the sensitive crop registry on the first day of each month.
This rule is intended to implement Iowa Code sections 206.6(5) “a”(3) and 206.19(2).”
This amendment effectively ended notification by applicators to beekeepers within the area but limits and restricts the times that pesticide may be applied within a one-mile radius of any registered bee colony.
The number of registered beehives is increasing each year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture - National Agricultural Statistics Service article on March 18, 2021, there are more than 35,000 bee producing colonies in Iowa, albeit this count only includes producers that have five or more colonies. This means that once you add in the producers that have less than 5 colonies, the number of hives in Iowa is much higher than the quoted 35,000.
In 2017, FieldWatch® Inc. added a new Iowa Sensitive Crop Registry platform called Bee Check that shows the location of each registered hive and its mile radius. It is also the location where producers must register their hive each year.
Our challenge here at Meyer Agri-Air is to comply with the bee rule while delivering our aerial spray application in the timeliest manner for each customer. We are looking ahead at orders to help us plan for the increasing number of bee hives in our spraying area. If you enter prepaid orders into AgSync early as booked or planned, it will assist us in this planning process.
We all understand that bees are an essential part of agriculture and pollination of crops. While addressing the ever-increasing challenge of additional beehives in Iowa and the limited time to apply pesticides, working together will help us all experience successful customer service!
The following article was found on the Iowa State Extension site June 17, 2021.
This week, the first adult soybean gall midges (Photo 1) were collected in Iowa and Minnesota. Thanks to Lauren Schwarck (Corteva Agriscience) for monitoring several emergence traps this year. The positive detections were located in Buena Vista County, an area with persistent soybean gall midge populations since at least 2017.
The adults have been steadily emerging from Nebraska for three weeks. Approximately two weeks after first emergence, plant injury was noted at some Nebraska collection sites. Based on their emergence timing, we would expect to see feeding injury to start appearing near previously infested fields next week.
Soybean gall midge is a new soybean pest that is only known to occur in 114 counties in 5 states (Figure 1): Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Missouri. Currently, 31 counties in western Iowa have positive detections as of 2020. The larvae (maggots) of gall midges feed inside the stem near the base of the soil. Eventually, infested plants may become brittle and break off at the site of feeding. Entire plants may die as a result of feeding, causing significant yield losses for a field. Typically, infestations begin at the field edge, where farmers will notice wilted or dead plants, then advance toward the interior.
Iowa has several trapping locations this year and supports a regional trapping network in four states. We will continue to provide updates on adult emergence throughout the summer. To stay updated on state and regional midge activity, we encourage you to subscribe to the Alert Network: https://soybeangallmidge.org/sign-up-for-network-updates.
Learn how to scout for soybean gall midge larvae in these videos: https://soybeangallmidge.org/scouting-for-soybean-gall-midge.
August 3, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of an experiment in Ohio when lead arsenate dust was spread over catalpa trees to kill sphinx moth larvae. Under the direction of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Lt. John A. Macready, a U.S. Army pilot, made the first application by aircraft with a modified Curtiss JN-6 “Super Jenny.” The government then utilized aerial application in the Southern states. In 1922, Curtiss biplanes were used to dust cotton fields near Tallulah, LA, to control bollweevils. In 1923, Huff-Daland Dusters, Inc.—the forerunner of Delta Airlines—did the first commercial dusting of crops with its own specially built aircraft.
NAAA is planning a major campaign to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first aerial application flight and the aerial application industry. This includes a short documentary, a complete history book of the industry and a significant outreach campaign to the public and the media. Our industry has a great story to tell. It plays a crucial role in helping farmers feed, clothe and provide bio-fuel to the world. It has evolved remarkably in ten decades. As such we continue to grow as an industry today. Our story is the kind of positive lead that can really help broadcast our industry’s image with the world-at-large.
(*From the NAAA website)