In Praise of Ag Research

12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Dennis Larison Editor

Nearly every week, Lancaster Farming publishes a couple of stories based on the latest findings in agricultural research.

But those are just the tip of the iceberg, having been selected from dozens of reports that are released every week.

Many of these findings are based on work done in the nation’s top universities, often with funding from the federal government and in consort with other universities or the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

With the level of that funding hanging in the balance as Congress renews its debate on the 2012 Farm Bill, now is a good time to reflect on how much that research has contributed to the efficiency of modern agriculture and the prospects for being able to feed a rapidly growing world population.

We know, for instance, that dairy farmers are producing more milk with fewer cows than at any previous time.

Part of that is ever-improving dairy genetics — a traditional part of good livestock husbandry — and part of it can be attributed to advances in our understanding of cow nutrition based on scientific research.

Similar efficiencies have been realized in most livestock industries. Sows are delivering more piglets per litter than in the past, and the nation’s beef herd is producing more meat per carcass.

The same story holds true — perhaps to an even greater extent — when farmers turn their gaze to the crops in their fields. Just this week, scientists are celebrating a breakthrough in the sequencing of the wheat genome, opening the door to disease-resistant varieties.

Another prominent recent example of this has been how well <\h>Midwest crops held up to this summer’s historic drought, a phenomenon that has been attributed in large part to new drought-resistant crop varieties.

“We can’t pinpoint exactly how much worse the drought could have been,” Allen S. Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, wrote in a recent letter to the Drover’s Cattle Network, “but we do know that because of agricultural research advances in the last few decades, modern crops are better equipped to withstand a dry summer and fall.”

Levine points out that in 1988, the last significant drought in Iowa, corn yields there dropped 35 percent from the year before, compared with just 17 percent in this year’s far worse drought.

All Americans, not just the agricultural sector, are benefiting from government funding for this research. According to Levine, Americans are now paying about 10 percent of their disposable income for food compared with the 16 percent they were paying 50 years ago.

The drought that hit two-thirds of the country this year is very likely to result in some higher food costs, he acknowledged, but not nearly as high as prices would have risen without government-funded research.

Of course, the government is not solely responsible for these scientific advances. In fact, a recent study by USDA’s Economic Research Service found that private-sector investments are shouldering a growing share of overall spending for agricultural research and development.

In an analysis published in a recent issue of the journal Science, Catherine Woteki, USDA’s chief scientist, said, “This study shows the great job that private industry is doing in research, much of which was built on the genetic technology USDA scientists have been working on for decades.”

This brings to mind such advances as the built-in resistance to pests and herbicides featured in many of the new crop varieties that the large seed companies have introduced.

But there are other, lesser-known efforts going on in the private sector, as well. One example is a research project sponsored by the Mosaic Co., a fertilizer maker in Plymouth, Minn., that has recruited a number of Midwest farmers to participate in research aimed at breaking the 300 bushel threshold for average corn production.

These farmers will be working with agronomy and soil experts to generate data to help fine-tune precision applications of fertilizer for a variety of seed-planting densities.

However, according to the USDA study, these efforts, while fruitful, tend to be focused on a narrower range of topics than government-funded research, concentrating more on food manufacturing than agricultural production, and more on crops and biofuels than on livestock.

Such findings underscore the importance of continued federal funding for agricultural research.

As USDA’s Woteki pointed out, “Agriculture is more dependent on scientific innovation than any other industry.”

And those innovations will be critical for sustaining people in this country and around the world for many years to come.

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