Public investment in agricultural research is waning, a former Secretary of agriculture said Tuesday, but American academics still have the skills necessary to make the country a leader in solving food security challenges.
Dan Glickman, who served in President Clinton's cabinet, made the comments during a Heuermann Lectures panel at the University of Nebraska, discussing the topic "Regaining the U.S. Lead in Agricultural and Natural Resources Research and Education."
The panel also featured Catherine Woteki, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for research, education and economics and Phil Pardey, professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Applied Economics.
Spending is stagnant
In 1980, the U.S. was the world's leader in public funding of agriculture, but beginning in about 2000, China began dramatically increasing its investment and has surpassed the U.S., Woteki said. Since then, Brazil and India also have increased research spending.
"This is not an arms race," Glickman said, noting that the extra investments in research are welcome. But the U.S. must stake a place in the effort to feed a population forecast to grow substantially by mid-century.
"We have the best scientists. We don't have to be doing all this work, but we have to be a leader," he said.
Despite the concern that the U.S. is lacking, Woteki said provisions in the farm bill will reverse the last few years' decline in ag research spending – but it must make it through Congress first. That's a sore spot for Glickman, who said the political debate is overshadowing real issues.
"We hear very little about the future of agriculture, about the ability to feed the world in a sustainable way, very little about these huge challenges," Glickman said of political disagreement, suggesting that leadership won't come from Congress on the issue of ag research.
"It comes from universities, the private sector," Glickman, a former Congressman from Kansas, said.
Boosting research now
Within those universities and even among some policy makers, though, this may be a pivotal moment in history with respect to U.S. leadership and policy on agriculture, said another panelist, UM economics professor Phil Pardey.
Although politicians tend to look only three to five years ahead, many in the ag sector understand the importance of "building new systems in this moment that will outlive them," Pardey said.
A key attempt to build those new systems recently outlined some recommendations. Among the proposals from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is a plan for six large, multidisciplinary "innovation institutes" that would bring together public-private partnerships to focus on emerging challenges to agriculture.
Woteki spent the day Tuesday in one of the listening sessions about institutes. The presidential panel recommends funding the institutes with $25 million in federal dollars per institute per year.
"We're early in our thinking," Woteki said, but the concept has potential to reframe investments and priorities to put the U.S. back in a leadership role.
Glickman added that there needs to be a grand strategy, with the U.S. leading the way. "We are uniquely positioned to lead a global call for action, but we've got to put our money where our mouth is," he said.