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Encore: Agricultural research funding is down, impacting fight against climate change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Billions of dollars every year get funneled into agriculture research - that is, research that helps advance farming technology. The federal government funds the vast majority of this research, but funding has fallen by a third - a loss of nearly $3 billion over the past couple decades. And that decline has implications for agriculture's ability to adapt to climate change. Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin has more.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: Gwyn Beattie tugs open the frosty door to her lab's industrial-style freezer, which houses thousands of plant and bacteria samples. It starts beeping angrily at her.

GWYN BEATTIE: And you can't have it open too long or else it beeps at you and says, I don't want to warm up.

CRONIN: Beattie is a professor of plant pathology at Iowa State University. She recently received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study drought resiliency in crops, a subject of increasing importance.

BEATTIE: There's not a sustainable amount of available fresh water for agriculture everywhere in the way we're going. So we really need plants that can thrive with less water.

CRONIN: But federal funding for that research is becoming more scarce. According to the USDA, funding levels for public agriculture research are hovering around $5 billion. That's on par with 1970s-era funding. Meanwhile, China has surpassed the U.S. in its agriculture research funding. Brazil, a major competitor in ag exports, has also increased its funding. Beth Ford is the CEO of ag giant Land O'Lakes. Speaking at a recent public event, she said she's worried the U.S. is falling behind in preparing for agriculture's stark future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETH FORD: We're going to have less arable land, less available water in the future. We know this. And at the same time, the population's set to go to 9 1/2, 10 billion. By 2050, we have to produce more food than the last 5,000 years combined.

CRONIN: That should be an eye-opener, she says. But while public funding for ag research has fallen over the past two decades, private funding, from companies like Land O'Lakes, has shot up. Iowa State University, for example, has seen a 50% increase in company-funded research over just the last two years. And agriculture has been at the forefront of that. Gabrielle Roesch-McNally does agricultural research with American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit that promotes environmentally friendly farming. She says relying on corporations for funding could skew the overall research agenda.

GABRIELLE ROESCH-MCNALLY: They're looking for ways that research can develop products - you know, tangible, intangible - that people will spend money on, that will increase their base of profit.

CRONIN: Research is a public good, she says, and it should mostly be up to the federal government to fund it. Those public research dollars are determined by Congress via the Farm Bill, which is set for reauthorization this year. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree sits on the agriculture appropriations subcommittee. She says getting more dollars for ag research can be a tough sell with some of her colleagues.

CHELLIE PINGREE: It's kind of abstract. It's not like direct funding to a program that puts, you know, milk in kids' lunches or, you know, things that people see as directly providing a service.

CRONIN: She hopes this year's Farm Bill reauthorization, though, brings renewed attention to the issue. Farm Bill hearings have already begun. For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dana Cronin
Dana Cronin is a reporter based in Urbana, Illinois. She covers food and agriculture issues in Illinois for Harvest. Dana started reporting in southern Colorado at member station 91.5 KRCC, where she spent three years writing about everything from agriculture to Colorado’s highest mountain peaks. From there she went to work at her hometown station, KQED, in San Francisco. While there she covered the 2017 North Bay Fires. She spent the last two years at NPR’s headquarters in Washington D.C., producing for shows including Weekend Edition and All Things Considered.