Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave a speech on the role of research at the USDA at the launch of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the research arm of that agency formerly referred to as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES).
Vilsack had this to say in his kick-off speech:
The opportunity to truly transform a field of science happens at best once a generation. Right now, I am convinced, is USDA’s opportunity to work with the Congress, the other science agencies, and with our partners in industry, academia, and the nonprofit sector, to bring about transformative change.
It is hard to reject the idea that our country needs more research on agriculture — specifically, more science-based knowledge from which to make political and regulatory decisions around food. But as his speech continued, Vilsack placed the focus on technology as our aegis. And while technology is not a bad thing, there are still many questions left unanswered that USDA could and should be focusing on — questions that the agribusiness lobby quite possibly doesn’t want answered, as the outcomes could force the public and our politicians to take a harder look at just what it means to build a truly sustainable food system.
NIFA will be headed by a controversial choice, Roger Beachy — formerly of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO, which receives funding from Monsanto, and was part of the lobbying effort to create NIFA in the mold of the National Science Foundation. Beachy joins a team that already includes Rajiv Shah, formerly of the Gates Foundation. The re-branding of CSREES worries sustainable food advocates who fear US research priorities could shift with the private sector’s coaxing further towards a more biotechnology-oriented focus in an attempt to end world hunger, even though more viable solutions to hunger — a problem of distribution and not yield — exist on the ground that are both cost-effective and ready to implement now in the developing world.
The government’s job is to to give unbiased science center stage, so that we can assess and make informed decisions about agriculture moving forward — decisions that are in our collective interest as a nation, not just in the interest of one sector of our economy. To begin, the USDA must extend 100% funding to formula grants at land grant universities again, thereby replacing the current practice of “matching funds” [pdf] — requiring these institutions to find a matching donor for between 50%-100% of the grant from outside of the government — which usually ends up being a private industry source. And what might the industry be interested in funding? Shareholders hope they will support things that have the potential to increase the bottom line, instead of research that investigates the way our food system is affecting us, which could detract from it. This is how the industry has controlled the types of research being conducted since matching funds were instituted in 1999 (as an amendment to the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977).
Vilsack also stated in his speech that in creating NIFA, “we will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to generate real results for the American people.” In thinking about how to better focus the government’s efforts on agricultural research in order to truly benefit the American people, I thought I’d reach out to some key thinkers on agriculture, and find out what they would like the USDA’s new research body, NIFA, to be focusing on. Here were their answers: Read more