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Observations on the President’s Budget in Agriculture

USDA Headquarters

Budget proposals – Presidential or Congressional – too often are more political Kabuki than serious policy, and the risk of smoke and mirrors is directly proportional to budget pressure. It is therefore a pleasant surprise to find in the President’s most recent budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture less theater than past experience would predict, as well as some genuinely sound policy.

ITIF has pointed out the sizeable discrepancy between present levels of support for agricultural research and development and those that would be commensurate to addressing the challenges facing agriculture over the next 40 years. We estimate that to meet the dual stresses of population growth and climate change on food production, existing agricultural research budgets should be tripled and focused on basic research and innovation that can drastically improve crop productivity and resiliency. This is the only way we will be able to meet food demand, which is expected to double by 2050.

The President’s budget proposal takes a significant step in the right direction by increasing funds for competitive grants in agricultural research by 45% over 2012 levels. In a time when the overall budget for USDA, and most other agencies, is flat or decreasing this is no small thing. Enhanced government funding will also serve as a catalyst for additional private sector and university investment and promote the general health of the entire agricultural research ecosystem.

It is also gratifying finally to see the long overdue proposal to eliminate crop support payments. Originally designed to provide farming families with a safety net to insulate against severe commodity price fluctuations, there can be no justification for continuing what have become massive transfer payments at a time of record high commodity prices. As the proposal states:  “With the value of both crop and livestock production at all-time highs, income support payments based upon historical levels of production can no longer be justified.” These reforms should free even more funds for agricultural research and allow the USDA’s focus to be more specifically targeted towards addressing growing food demand.

However, even with this positive momentum, there is still much more to be done. For these funding increases to deliver the hoped for results, systemic reforms are required to advance development of next generation plant and animal genetics, enhance centers of excellence targeting specific agricultural challenges, and move policy away from deployment of existing technologies to basic research. In addition, there should be greater focus placed on interagency and international collaboration, in areas of agricultural research, between USDA, DOE, USAID, EPA and international organizations such as the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Finally, there needs to be stronger connections between research organizations, government agencies and the private sector to ensure new innovations are commercialized as quickly as possible and disseminated globally.

Still, the President’s proposal does indicate the administration recognizes the importance of agricultural innovation and ITIF is hopeful this will spur additional reforms of the system.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons User Nashpaul

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