Investing in farming is worthwhile

Douglas Buhler

In May, Sen. Debbie Stabenow held a hearing at Michigan State University to say, as ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, she intends to work across the aisle to write and pass a new Farm Bill in 2018 that supports Michigan farmers and families and creates new jobs. For farmers — many of whom are going through difficult financial times not experienced since the 1980s — Stabenow’s pledge brought peace of mind.

For those of us in food and agricultural sciences, the hearing at MSU, an institution committed to cutting-edge ag research, gave even more reassurance.

As federal dollars devoted to agriculture and food sciences continue to decline, the private sector and foundations are funding innovative science that will feed the world with less impact on our natural resources. In fact, today the private sector outspends the public sector by a 4-to-1 margin in food and ag research. When working together most effectively, public and private research are symbiotic — driving each other to achieve bigger and bolder things. Yet, until now, no single institution has existed to harness the power and resources of both.

Congress created that institution, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, in 2014. I joined their board of directors soon thereafter.

The first and only independent nonprofit research foundation dedicated to food and agriculture, FFAR’s mission is to accelerate problem solving on behalf of U.S. agriculture by funding cutting-edge research. FFAR is required to match every one of its public dollars with non-federal funding, meaning it delivers huge value for American taxpayers by partnering with companies, foundations, universities, trade associations, philanthropists — almost anyone with a great idea. In fact, every $1 invested by FFAR attracts $1.40 in non-U.S. federal funding. The result: The U.S. government’s $200 million investment in the foundation will deliver more than $400 million in scientific programming to benefit farmers and anyone who eats.

And the foundation is nimble, with the ability to award grants in as little as one week to combat emerging pests, diseases, and weather threats before it’s too late. Through an emergency response grant program modeled after Michigan’s own Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs), FFAR partnered with MSU and industry to combat spotted wing drosophila, an invasive pest that decimated 21 percent of Michigan’s 2016 cherry crop. This important research has the potential to benefit farmers not only in Michigan, but also in the 40 other states where SWD has been identified.

FFAR also brings together diverse groups that might not otherwise collaborate to solve big challenges. The Crops of the Future project is a great example. Here, the foundation is collaborating with eight international companies and organizations. The partners are contributing money, research and data to identify genetic traits in crops that help meet new demands, like withstanding drought or delivering higher nutritional content.

The foundation is also on the cutting edge of today’s most exciting discoveries. In mid-September, FFAR and the Gates Foundation announced a $45 million investment to develop plants that use their own natural photosynthetic process — which converts light and air into energy for growth — to grow bigger and faster. The result: food plants produce 20 percent more food using the same resources. This science will be a game-changer for global hunger relief as populations continue to grow.

Here in Michigan, the future of crop and livestock production is top of mind. If we hope to maintain historic output in a changing environment, our food system must adopt new innovations brought about by cutting-edge science and research. The FFAR model delivers and doubles the taxpayer’s investment to boot.

Stabenow, along with her Republican counterpart Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, should be commended for having the foresight to create this forward-thinking institution. As Congress decides what priorities to fund in the next Farm Bill, I am hopeful FFAR is near the top of their list.

Douglas Buhler is assistant vice president for research and graduate studies at MSU, a professor, and director of MSU AgBioResearch.