Background Paper Hampered by Focus on Narrow Research Goals

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Editor’s note: Recently, AGree posted to its website a background paper by Philip G. Pardey, Julian M. Alston and Connie Chan-Kang entitled Public Food and Agricultural Research in the United States: The Rise and Decline of Public Investments, and Policies for Renewal. The publication was commissioned by AGree to inform and stimulate dialogue about policy reform; it does not represent official AGree positions.

It is commendable that the authors of the background paper recently posted to the AGree website argue for the need to double federal funding for agricultural research and present new analysis of data related to research investments. However, in the process of doing so, they fall far short of fulfilling the fundamental AGree goal of addressing food system challenges in an integrated way.

The authors focus narrowly on research that is designed to enhance farm productivity, with no thought for the complicated realities that exist in the real world. The paper narrowly equates economic benefit with progress, rather than incorporating the principles of sustainability. When they refer to "externalities," the authors tend to dismiss them as minor “perceptions” of the uninformed. Rather than attempt the difficult job of addressing environmental enhancement as an integral and valuable part of productivity, the authors state that, "The least cost way of addressing environmental externalities is through environmental policy." In other words, keep everything in its own silo please.

Along with dense data, the paper suffers from language and graphics that are at times difficult to comprehend. In addition, the reader will find unsupportable assumptions like: "Enhanced productivity… means that consumers have access to a more abundant, cheaper, safer, higher quality, more diverse, and more convenient food supply…" This is hyperbole, and cannot be backed up with data.

The paper repeatedly downplays concerns of the real world. For example, it states: "The US public agricultural research agenda has increasingly focused on concerns such as food safety, food security and the environmental implications of agriculture, programs of research that have little if any impact on enhancing or maintaining farm-level productivity." The paper faults regulations that restrict biotechnology and goes on to argue that the returns on research into organic production will bring lower private and social returns.

Today’s agricultural researchers, if they wish to remain relevant and compete for public funding, will need to pay more attention to the complicated and messy realities of growing food for hungry people in a world where a declining water supply, climate change, and social instability may all be conspiring against stable and productive agriculture. It is this attitude, that agricultural productivity is all that matters, that has led us into many of the quagmires that we are trying to get out of!

While I take issue with many of the arguments advanced in this paper, I do appreciate that AGree is providing a space for dialogue on challenging and complex issues with the goal of driving transformative and positive change in the food and agriculture system.

Judith Redmond is a partner at Full Belly Farm and serves as a member of the AGree Advisory Committee.