“Agricultural Innovations: Changes Needed for Global Competitiveness”

U.S. agriculture is a long-time leader in innovation and global competitiveness. But more collaboration and renewed focus on public-sector research are needed for that to continue.

That’s a key conclusion from the Farm Foundation Forum on “Agricultural Innovations: Changes Needed for Global Competitiveness” held Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Farm Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides nonpartisan policy and forums related to agriculture, the event was open to journalists and others online.

The forum examined how ag research and innovation can provide new tools to meet growing global demand for food, feed, fuel and fiber. The following participated in the forum:

• Ken Ash, director of the Trade and Agriculture Directorate of the Organisation for Co-operation and Development. The Paris-based group seeks to promote the economic and social well-being of people around the word.

• Catherine Moreddu, senior ag policy analyst at OECD.

• Margaret Zeigler, executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative, which describes itself “as a private-sector voice for productivity growth throughout the agricultural value chain to sustainably meet the demands of a growing world.”

• Jeffrey Steiner, division director of plant production in the Institute of Food Production and Sustainability at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

• Alan Leshner, CEO Emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Leshner noted that while he’s not an agricultural scientist, he is a strong supporter of funding for ag research. But public-sector funding for ag research, which he and other panelists cited as a crucial component in ag productivity gains, has slipped in recent years, especially when inflation is factored in.

“I believe research is the foundation of innovation. It’s the core of U.S. competitiveness,” Leshner said. ” I’m very concerned about the overall health of the U.S. agricultural research enterprise, which I think is in serious trouble.”

“There has to be a hue and cry, whether it comes from the agriculture community or the broader community, that says if we want to reestablish competitiveness in agriculture, we’re going to have to make substantially more investments in public funding,” Leshner said.

Through public funding for ag research has dipped, private-sector funding for it has increased sharply in the past decade, which offsets part — but not all — of the much larger decline in public-spending funding, panelists said.

“Agriculture, as a sector, is incredibly research-dependent,” increasing the need for collaboration been the private and public sectors, Zeigler said.

Moreddu noted that private sector research is still relatively small, which limits potential benefit from private-public cooperation.

Ash said it’s important that public-private partnerships in ag research be spread among a wide range of companies, not just a favored few, and that the public sector not end up subsidizing the private sector.

Increased collaboration among countries also benefits ag research, Moreddu said. Despite differences, “The countries have shared goals and common opportunities.”

One possibility mentioned during the forum: That a bigger presence in U.S. ag by Silicon Valley, the nickname America’s high-tech industry, would bolster U.S. competitiveness.

Ash suggested that some federal funding now allocated to counter-cyclical payments — money that goes to farmers in tough economic times — might be spent instead on ag research.

A 2013 Agweek cover package examining longstanding — and ongoing — concern about lessened public sector funding for ag research: www.agweek.com/crops/3790247-shortchanging-ag-research.

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