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Cranberries 9

Eric Wissman, a laboratory technician with the USDA and Agricultural Research Service, tends to cranberry plants that are being grown and studied at UW-Madison. 

Millions of Americans value healthy food, want clean water from their tap, support farmers making a decent living, or just want to grow vegetable varieties that don’t wither from disease. Most probably give little thought, if any, to the importance of agricultural research.

Someone told me years ago that agricultural research matters because “it’s the road map” for the agricultural systems we want (or absolutely don’t want) to create. At the time, much agricultural research seemed designed by researchers to help them get tenure, or respond to corporate interests, or appeal to their colleagues’ esteem, rather than to address the needs of consumers, struggling farmers or other stakeholders.

But over the years, through effort and advocacy, research programs have slowly opened to issues of environmental impacts from agriculture — like protecting clean water sources. To farmers’ concerns about profitability. To consumer preferences for transparency about food sources and food labeling. To challenges facing beginning farmers, and more.

It’s still an imperfect system, with research programs sometimes clumsy and politicized, but we’ve seen major progress. For example, in 1994, the Economic Research Service, which is charged with conducting impartial analyses of agricultural and food policy, was moved from the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, where it had sometimes been used simply to justify that department’s policies, to USDA’s research division, where its independence and research integrity were supported.

In mid-August, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a proposal to take two giant steps backward. First, he would transfer the Economic Research Service back under his direct authority, clearly politicizing its work. Earlier this year, when the president proposed extreme budgetary cuts to the service, many wondered, “Is the Trump administration afraid of impartial economic analyses of its agricultural policies?” Perdue’s announcement answers that question.

Perdue also announced moving the physical location of the department’s largest competitive grants agency (National Institute for Food and Agriculture) to an undetermined location outside of Washington, D.C., for which they invited “expressions of interest." Given the certainty that many experienced staff will not uproot their households to move wherever the institute relocates, staff numbers will certainly plummet, just at a time when Congress has increased its responsibilities — a certain prescription for bureaucratic fumbling and delays. Also, removing the agency from its active dialogue with the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and other research partners distances it just when agriculture’s relevance to health, environment, and other research areas argue for more intense interagency collaboration, not less.

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The administration claims that its purpose is to put the agency in closer touch with stakeholders, but it failed to demonstrate that intention by even obtaining stakeholder input into this surprise proposal. No researcher, administrator, or farmer I’ve spoken with supports the idea. There has been no cost-benefit analysis or study demonstrating the need or value of this proposal. Most people understand this bad idea to be Trump’s attempt to cut down government with a blunt instrument.

Fortunately, the proposal won’t go forward without legislators appropriating the monies for the move. Wisconsin’s two agricultural appropriators, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Mark Pocan, have long supported a balanced agricultural research agenda. As the House and Senate negotiate agricultural funding for Fiscal Year 2019, they should pull no punches but insist on hard analyses demonstrating the need, efficacy, and fiscal implications of any move. Anything less is a disservice to agriculture’s future.

Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.

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