Advocacy in Action

Research? Who Needs Research?

The AASV Board of Directors met during the association’s annual meeting in March. One of the actions of the board was to adopt a position statement supporting additional funding for agricultural research at the federal level. I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss the significance of this action and the critical issue it addresses.

The position statement adopted by the board reads as follows:

“The AASV encourages the USDA and Congress to reevaluate the allocation of funding for research issues to address swine diseases and to adequately fund research programs and facilities. The association will work with the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council to obtain an accounting of current federal research budgets and determine industry needs relative to swine disease research.”

Why should the AASV be concerned about the amount of money the federal government spends on swine research? While most of us would agree that research forms the very basis of our profession and the future of the swine industry, critics would argue that the federal government should not be in the business of funding research, particularly research that may benefit only a specific industry. That should be the responsibility of the individual industries.

The swine industry can be very proud of its support for research over the years. Producers have invested millions of Checkoff dollars into programs to address swine diseases, environmental issues, welfare challenges, food safety, and demand enhancement. Swine veterinarians and the AASV have taken an active role in deciding how best to prioritize the issues and proportion the limited funds available. The swine industry has partnered with universities, private practitioners, allied industries, and the federal government to address the issues challenging our industry. Industry-funded research has resulted in significant advances in the areas of PRRS, PCVAD, genomics, nutrition, welfare, and demand enhancement, just to name a few.

Some research efforts, however, exceed the capabilities of the industry and are best addressed at the research facilities of the federal government. The US Department of Agriculture has two main research agencies, the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) and the Cooperative State Research, Extension and Education Service (CSREES). These two agencies conduct basic long-term research that would be too time consuming or nonprofitable for universities or allied industries to undertake. There are also research issues which only the federal government can address. Foreign animal disease research, for instance, is uniquely within the purview of the USDA. Likewise, emerging disease research requires the breadth of resources available only through the cooperative alliances established at the federal level.

The concern is that the level of funding for research in animal agriculture has been held flat or declined over the last few years, and the trend appears to be continuing. Due to the rising costs associated with maintenance, upkeep, and general operations, flat budgets equate to decreasing purchasing power and fewer dollars available to conduct the research. As I write this article in early April, Congress is continuing to debate the Farm Bill. Congressional negotiators have proposed cutting funding for the Farm Bill’s research title by $1.244 billion to fund other projects requested in the bill. This represents a cut in mandatory funding for research in excess of 75% at the same time when there is compelling evidence that food and agricultural research, extension, and education is chronically underfunded to meet identified priority needs. We are aggressively fighting this proposal, but only time will tell.

Furthermore, construction is nearing completion on the National Centers for Animal Health. The $460 million facility in Ames, Iowa, will house the National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL), the National Animal Disease Center, and the Center for Veterinary Biologics. Unfortunately, no funds were appropriated to actually move all the staff and researchers into the new facility. The USDA has estimated it will cost an additional $12 million to purchase equipment and physically move into the building. While the agency and congress debate what programs to cut in order to find the funds necessary, the facility sits empty and continues to drain resources from ARS’s already stretched budget.

As we are all aware, an outbreak of PRRS virus in Southeast Asia has resulted in the mortality of millions of pigs. The USDA was successful in obtaining samples for research at Plum Island and NVSL. After determining that the causative agent was not a foreign animal disease, researchers at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center were able to isolate a suspect virus. The virus was transferred to NVSL for further diagnostic analysis. Unfortunately, USDA has been unable to find $100,000 in its budget to conduct the needed sequencing and challenge work. ARS actually came to the National Pork Board requesting funding to conduct the research. This is an example of the state of affairs USDA finds itself in when attempting to respond to a potentially devastating emerging disease. There is no established reserve fund to draw from to respond to emerging threats.

And, while we’re talking about Plum Island, it should be noted that the entire research budget for foreign animal diseases is a paltry $4 million. They are limited to conducting research only on foot-and-mouth disease and some classical swine fever projects. The swine industry has already lost all research on African swine fever (ASF) as a result of the Department of Homeland Security’s takeover of Plum Island in 2003. We are now observing devastating outbreaks of ASF outside of historically endemic areas. An outbreak of a foreign animal disease in the US swine industry would result in the loss of all exports and an estimated drop in domestic pork prices by 60% to 70% overnight. Exports account for over 15% of pork production in the United States and contribute an estimated $23 per head to domestic hog prices. Obviously, the introduction of a foreign animal disease would cost US agriculture billions of dollars.

These examples represent a small sample of the challenges facing agricultural research at the federal level. Reductions in available funding from other sources are compounding the problem. Universities are moving away from livestock research in favor of more lucrative companion-animal, laboratory-animal, and human research efforts. As we struggle with declining profits in the swine industry, fewer producer dollars will be available to contribute to research as well.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. I am amazed at the level of dedication and ingenuity of the researchers in ARS and CSREES. The quality of the science produced at these facilities in spite of the constant struggle for funding is to be applauded. The budget challenges, however, are making it increasingly difficult to hire and retain top scientists and access the resources necessary to conduct the level of scientific study the industry requires.

Hopefully I have raised your awareness of why the AASV board considers this a critical issue that warrants a concentrated effort and sense of urgency. The actions of the board allow us to focus on working with our industry partners to start addressing these concerns. In the face of flat or declining budgets, we have to be smarter about how we prioritize research needs and we have to actively participate with our research partners to guide their efforts. It’s going to be a long uphill climb, but we cannot afford to ignore the problem any longer.

-- Harry Snelson, DVM