Tech Tuesday

Farm Tech Spending Under Fire

Lack of action by Congress threatens more than the Defense Department.

Sitting in a panel presentation earlier this year, a well-known Extension expert made a comment that highlights what has evolved into a growing concern. Rather than name names I'll summarize the point: Cuts to Extension research funding are going to make it hard for the system to support farmers and the future of food production.

Earlier this month, three scientific societies - often called the "tri-societies" - joined in a warning to Congress that automatic budget cuts looming in January "will have devastating effects on the nondefense discretionary community." The three groups include the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America. And those automatic cuts stem from the inability of Congress to pass budget-cutting measures in 2011 as part of a deficit reduction deal. Farmers are aware of the challenge because the "Group of 12" couldn't reach an agreement on new ag spending changes as part of that deal.

Now automatic cuts loom and they'll slice an added $500 billion from Defense and billions from other areas over the next 10 years. The three societies joined with 3,000 other groups noting that sequestration - as the auto-cuts are called - will reduce NDD spending by about 8% across most federal programs. Ellen Bergfeld, CEO of the three associations, says it's important to protect the investment in science and technology. In a press statement, Bergeld says: "If sequestration occurs, there will be fewer job opportunities related to scientific and technological advances. Spending has already been cut and we face what could be an immediate and widespread impact on the food, agriculture and environmental research needed to grow economic performance and competitiveness of the United States."

Cutting government spending is a great goal. Wholesale automatic cuts are not. I'll not get into a debate over Defense spending cuts, but government spending on science is important because that's where the money for "pure" research often comes. This is research into the lives of a cell, research into the very stuff of life that can help us better understand everything from water utilization to enhancing yield and more.

Commercial support of food research has come under fire because the focus is on products that may not always be focused beyond an immediate need. Or course, that's how business works, projects get support when they can earn money. You want to do more; a funding source without an immediate need for a commercial return is needed. That's where the government comes in.

Government spending on research isn't a boondoggle, or an exercise in throwing good money after bad. Science is hard work. Science is messy. But science gets results.

We know we're challenged to double food production, using less land and half the water we use now to feed 9 billion by 2050. The next statement after that challenge should not be "with less research money." This drought we're facing shows that food production is pushed to meet rising demand under sometimes very tough circumstances; less funding shouldn't be part of the picture.

The challenge ahead is to get Congress, which both parties now call a do-nothing group to pull together and revisit sequestration. Not just to protect Defense jobs, but to create a healthier environment to grow the economy. Bad news Congress, sometimes you have to spend a little money to make money - which I thought all capitalists understood.

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