Advocacy in action
The current crisis in agricultural research

The efficiencies of production and wholesomeness and safety of the food we eat today is a direct result of the research emphasis placed on agriculture over the last 120 years. In 1887, congress passed the Hatch Act, which established funding to support land-grant universities and promote the advancement of US agriculture. According to the USDA Agriculture Census, in 1900 the value of all livestock and poultry was approximately $3.1 billion. In 2007, livestock and poultry value in the United States exceeded $132 billion. Much of this value was achieved through adoption of innovation and technology that improved production efficiencies, animal health, nutrition, genetics, housing, and animal-husbandry practices, while addressing many environmental, labor, and animal well-being concerns with an emphasis on producing wholesome, safe, plentiful, and inexpensive food for the world.

Unfortunately, public funding for basic agricultural research has declined in terms of real dollars. As prices for goods, utilities, and labor have increased, federal funding has remained largely constant at best. I would like to emphasize what I see as a serious funding shortage and concern regarding the shift in the source of funding we’re experiencing today and the move away from basic research. More often than ever before, agriculture is having to rely on private enterprises and government agencies not focused on agriculture for research funding. I find this a disturbing trend, as US agriculture is competing with other countries for access to foreign markets.

There are two key avenues within USDA for research funding: the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which conducts in-house or intramural research projects within USDA, and the Competitive State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES, renamed in 2009 the National Institute for Food and Agriculture), which funds extramural research at the state level through land-grant universities and the State Agricultural Experiment Stations (SAES).

Public agricultural research funding in the US is a federal-state partnership. The federal government funds research conducted through ARS and at state institutions such as the SAES and veterinary colleges. These institutions also receive funding from state legislatures, private sources, and federal agencies other than USDA. There was a period of sustained growth in public-funded agricultural research starting in the 1930s. This ushered in many of the technological advances and basic understanding of agricultural principles that have made American agriculture the worldwide leader in innovation and the efficient production of wholesome, safe, plentiful, and affordable food.

In recent years, however, the focus on funding basic agricultural research efforts has declined in terms of real dollars. This has not only limited the research projects that can be undertaken, but it has also affected the ability to hire and retain top researchers in agricultural fields, support programs at universities that encourage students to pursue advanced degrees in animal science and food-animal veterinary medicine, and maintain and enhance the research infrastructure. State funding has declined in recent years, with USDA funding remaining level at best.

Fortunately, there has been interest from the private sector and other federal agencies (the US Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health [NIH], and the National Science Foundation) in funding agricultural research, so that, after accounting for inflation, overall funding levels have remained constant since 1980. In 1980, private investment of agricultural research and development surpassed public investment. Research funding from other federal agencies has increased as a proportion of the overall funding scheme supporting agricultural research. The question is, are these sources of funding targeting research that benefits all aspects of production agriculture? Are they funding the types of research programs that will not be done anywhere else (ie, long-term, basic, not-for-profit research projects) or cannot be done anywhere else (eg, foreign animal disease, zoonotic, or terrorism-related projects)? Who controls the results with privately funded research projects? Will the NIH fund projects benefiting animal health without a human-health component? What will be their research focus with zoonotic diseases – improving animal health or protecting human health?

Even more alarming to me is the trend of USDA spending on research projects within its own research agency. Between 1980 and the late 1990s, USDA funding at ARS declined, resulting in fewer research programs and a loss of scientists. Although funding in terms of real dollars has fluctuated back to 1980 levels, the number of scientists still does not match the 1980 number, according to the USDA’s own Economic Research Service report.

Policy advisors have recommended shifting public research efforts from applied to basic research. Just the opposite has occurred, however. The CSREES funding of basic research has declined, and privately-funded research tends to target more near-term applied projects. As a result, we lose the emphasis on the long-term research that promotes future innovations that will allow the US to continue to be a world leader in food production.

The following are some recent examples of funding issues of concern to me, specifically involving animal-health issues:

  • USDA struggled to find $100,000 to conduct follow-up research on isolates derived from cases of porcine high fever disease killing millions of pigs in Asia. Researchers even approached the National Pork Board to fund animal studies and viral sequencing.
  • USDA provides a paltry $2.4 million for foreign animal disease research at Plum Island. Due to budget decisions, the agency eliminated all research on African swine fever (ASF) and is currently only researching foot-and-mouth disease and classical swine fever. As we know, ASF (for which there is no treatment or vaccine) has now spread into Georgia and Russia. The Department of Homeland Security has provided additional funding to support research and the development of vaccines at Plum Island, as well as funding facility maintenance and improvements (as current landlords of the facility).
  • ARS is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain top scientists.
  • Funds needed to support research projects are at times spent on operating expenses and facility needs, such as utilities and moving into new facilities.
  • In 2007, only 0.04% ($32 million) of the USDA’s $88 billion budget was spent on research. By comparison, the Department of Health and Human Services apportioned over 4% (almost $30 billion) of its budget to the NIH, of which 80% supports research projects.
  • Formula funds (“block grants”) to states have declined since the 1980s.

So, how can we in animal agriculture influence this trend in research funding? Some suggestions are as follows:

  • We must continue to encourage USDA to seek adequate research funding and support their efforts at the congressional level;
  • It is important to stress the need for increased funding from USDA to support agriculture research as a proportion of the overall funding stream;
  • The agricultural industry needs to emphasize the importance of basic research;
  • The agricultural industries need to better define to all funding sources why additional funding benefits both human health and animal agriculture;
  • Agriculture researchers need to continue to tap into other sources of funding, but find ways to maximize those dollars to address agricultural issues;
  • We must encourage increased cooperation between applied and basic researchers;
  • We must encourage increased collaboration with human-health colleagues;
  • Researchers, livestock producers, and veterinarians need to increase the focus on the issue of agricultural research emphasis among livestock industry advocates.

If you are interested in an in-depth review of the current situation involving agricultural research funding, I suggest you read the USDA’s Economic Research Service’s 2009 report entitled U.S. Public Agricultural Research: Changes in Funding Sources and Shifts in Emphasis, 1980-2005, available online at

--Harry Snelson, DVM