Photograph by A.J. Mast, The New York Times, Redux
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The federal government spends less than 2 percent of its research-and-development budget on food and agriculture, says the president of a new nonprofit that's calling on Congress to increase funding.

Photograph by A.J. Mast, The New York Times, Redux
The Plate

To Protect the Food Supply, Spend More Federal Money

Calls for more funds to speed our ability to protect crops and livestock from disease and climate change highlight a faltering system.

When a deadly disease that was killing millions of piglets suddenly arrived in the United States in 2013, no one was sure at first what was happening.

It looked like the illness, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, might be moving across the country in pig feed—but that had never happened with a virus before. For an expert in swine nutrition, it was an intriguing case. Jason Woodworth, at the time a new faculty member at Kansas State University, scrambled to put together a team and get to the bottom of it. But once he had the veterinarians, virologists, and diagnostic experts he needed, he confronted another problem: There was no money available to support rapid-response research.

“Quick action isn’t possible through the typical federally funded channels, because it takes so long to put together applications,” he tells The Plate. He located some funding from the National Pork Board instead. With that backing, he and the team confirmed that imported grains had arrived contaminated with the virus—and developed a new process that killed the pathogen with heat.

The experience led Woodworth to lend his name and story to an effort put together by 13 universities and a new nonprofit, SoAR (the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation), who are jointly calling on Congress to increase the federal funds that go to food and agriculture research and change how they’re distributed.

“Our mission is to improve the quality and quantity of publicly funded food and agricultural research,” says Thomas Grumbly, SoAR’s president, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Energy, where he was an undersecretary. “In 1974, the federal government spent 10 percent of its R-and-D money on food and agriculture. Now it spends less than 2 percent.”

A Failing System

Their pleas for support tap the same concerns that were behind the unsuccessful advocacy for funding Zika research. President Obama asked Congress in February for $1.9 billion, and some lawmakers countered with $1.1 billion, cribbed in part from money intended to prep for a return of Ebola. But in the end, nothing happened; Congress went home for the summer without making the award. Anticipating that was possible, some public health experts and lawmakers started pressing instead for creating a permanent public health “disaster fund,” similar to the money the Federal Emergency Management Agency draws on in emergencies.

Public health funding, like the missing Zika money, protects Americans from disease threats by supporting research into pathogens and strengthening the health infrastructure of labs, researchers, and health-care personnel. SoAR says agricultural research needs funding for similar reasons: protecting crops and livestock from diseases and climate change and, as a further benefit, maintaining economic competition.

In a report, “Retaking the Field,” that sets out its case, the organization says that China’s outlay has risen to more than 20 percent of global agricultural research spending, while U.S. appropriations have fallen since the mid-2000s to less than 15 percent.

The organization—which draws its backers from a range of political perspectives, from the National Pork Producers’ Council and American Soybean Association to the Natural Resources Defense Council and Consumer Federation of America—says the way that food and ag research are funded in the U.S., through land-grant universities, no longer works.

“That system was transformative when it began” in the mid-19th century, Grumbly says. “But now, if you have a pest that emerges in one part of Florida, the science that eliminates that pest may be conducted in New York City.”

The group would like to see funding not just increased but also shifted to a program in which individual researchers compete without regard to where they work—a system that the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation already follow. A small version of such a program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, was created at the USDA by the 2008 Farm Bill but has received less than half of the $700 million per year in funding that was originally proposed. As a result, SoAR says, $1.4 billion in projects have been recommended for AFRI funding by reviewers of grant proposals, but only $270 million has been awarded.

The Cost of a Brilliant Idea

Making more funds available would make a difference to the work of Woubit Abdela, a veterinarian and molecular biologist who’s an associate professor at Tuskegee University, a historically black and land-grant college. She and her collaborators developed a handheld device that can rapidly identify Salmonella—which causes more than a million illnesses a year in the United States—while foods are still at the processing plant. The device cuts the time needed to detect the pathogen from days to hours, which not only forestalls disease outbreaks but also prevents massive, costly recalls of meat that’s already been shipped.

Development of the device was funded by an initial grant of $250,000 from AFRI, but those funds also went to support her establishing and staffing a lab, and finding follow-up funding is intensely time-consuming, she tells The Plate.

“I spend probably 25 percent of my time writing grants, and that is on top of teaching, writing manuscripts, and running my research in the lab and mentoring masters and Ph.D. students,” she says. “There is very high competition, even if you have a brilliant idea. You feel like you have to be in a super-big university, where you can show you have big facilities where the work can be done, but we are a very small university. There is not enough budget to go around.”