Victor Lechtenberg, Dean of Agriculture at Purdue University and chairman of the Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board, consulted with Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry as they drafted the new legislation. The bill has cleared the committee but has not yet come up for a vote in the Senate.
"Before this bill, I used to say that if I could change one thing about research at land-grant universities, it would be our inability to identify and fund emerging research issues," Lechtenberg says. "In the past few years, new issues such as genome mapping, precision farming and food-borne pathogens have pressed for attention, and we just haven't had the funding to give our full effort to these issues."
In addition to the lack of responsiveness of previous research funding, there were other concerns with the nation's agricultural research funding that this new legislation addresses, Lechtenberg says: "There was a concern that stakeholders -- farmers, agribusiness people, environmentalists, consumers -- didn't have priority-setting input on research funding. There was also the concern among legislators and others that research wasn't as cross-state and cross-disciplinary as it should be. All of these concerns were legitimate, and all of these concerns have been addressed in this new legislation."
The bill covers all agricultural research, and includes a renewal of the Fund for Rural America. But the section that has been receiving much attention is Section 301, which calls for a new research initiative in the nation's agriculture and food systems. This research initiative would be funded by $100 million in the 1998 fiscal year, with the amount increasing to $170 million annually for 1999-2002. Overall, this increases agricultural research by approximately 10 percent.
The additional research funds, to some degree, are a matter of politicians keeping their promises: When Congress passed the Freedom to Farm legislation as part of the 1996 Farm Bill, the farmers understood that research funding would increase to assure long-term technological competitiveness.
Another reason that the Senate committee wants to increase research funding is renewed recognition of the value of American agriculture and the country's food system, Lechtenberg says.
"The House is as supportive of agricultural research as the Senate is. In the past two years we've made a turnaround on this," he says. "One reason is that during the writing of the Farm Bill legislation, when the commodity organizations fought for support programs, there was a lot of disagreement about what would be funded, and about agricultural policy. But after the dust settled, all of the various commodity groups came together to support agricultural research.
"I think the commodity sector realizes that we are truly in a world marketplace now, and that our edge is research and technology. Therefore, we need to make investments that keep us in the lead."
Besides this general recognition of the value of research, two other forces were driving the need for agricultural research, one an opportunity and one a threat.
As for the opportunity, Lechtenberg says there is widespread recognition that biotechnology offers numerous benefits in the next few years.
But there is also a concern about the safety of the nation's food supply that must be investigated, Lechtenberg says.
"My personal belief is that food safety problems caused by pathogens will be a long-term challenge," Lechtenberg says. "We continue to push the envelope with our demands for food taste and convenience. Processing to provide taste, convenience and nutrition -- and assure pathogen-free products -- becomes even more challenging."
Although pesticides on foods receive more attention in the media than food contamination by microbes, Lechtenberg says he considers this concern misdirected. "The real issue in having healthy food is pathogens, not pesticides," he says.
Although such new opportunities and problems are obvious to most people in agriculture, the low level of funding in the past meant there was little opportunity for the research institutions to shift funds to the new issues.
The new legislation remedies this by providing new funds and by giving the 30-member National Agriculture Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board a voice in setting the priorities for allocating the funding. The advisory board members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, and each represents a different constituency within the agriculture and food system.
As chairman of the advisory board, Lechtenberg says that the funding legislation is flexible enough to give the ag secretary, with the advice of the advisory board, latitude to address major priorities.
"Congress acts wisely when it acts broadly," Lechtenberg says. "We've already been able to make a case for more research in the important areas of food safety, value-added products, new product development, environmental stewardship and water quality."
For the first year, the Senate bill targets these priority areas for research funding:
"People used to think that grants were awarded by scientists only to benefit scientists, but now it is clear that we are allocating these funds to solve real problems," Lechtenberg says. "We were doing that all along, but the perception was that the priorities were set by the scientists. This new procedure will tie research funding to stakeholders' problems, and nonagricultural consumers are one of the major stakeholders."
Although Lechtenberg says the new oversight procedures will do much to show that consumers, farmers and other nonscientists have a voice in the way research dollars are spent, the perception problem is one that needs constant attention. "Scientists still need to talk to the stakeholders -- in front of groups, through the media, person to person -- to let them know that their concerns are being addressed," he says.
In addition to oversight by the advisory board, the legislation also makes the grant process more competitive than in the past. Now, any university or research institution, not just land-grant universities, can compete for the research funding.
"These grants are open to any university. My opinion is that this is a good change. I fully support this," Lechtenberg says.
"The land-grant system has been criticized for duplication of efforts among states. One of the problems has been that there has been no incentive to avoid duplication. This legislation clearly directs a preference to research that is multi-institutional and multidisciplinary, which will eliminate this duplication and provide other tangible benefits."
Source: Victor Lechtenberg, (765) 494-8391
Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, email@example.com
NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A color file photo of Dean Victor Lechtenberg is available from the Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096.
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