Neglecting agricultural research leaves a livestock count

It’s typical of the way things are going for farmers that the one bright spot in the US agriculture sector has the bleakest outlook, with the entire segment poised to fall off a cliff deeper than anyone can. can imagine it.

According to the latest report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, much of the US agricultural sector is in dire straits due to a fatal trifecta of “bad weather, low commodity prices and trade disruptions.” Farm bankruptcies are up 24% over last year. But pork production is doing well – so far.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts a 10.8% increase in pork prices in 2019 compared to 2018. In the first nine months of 2018, U.S. pork exports to China increased exceeded 142,200 tons despite the trade war. And yet, hog farmers across the United States are holding their breath because those prospects hinge on African swine fever not arriving on American soil.

Despite its name, African swine fever (ASF) is an international threat, appearing in more than 50 countries. In China, which typically produces more pork than all other countries combined, an estimated 300 million pigs have perished either from an incurable viral infection or from mass culls on an inconceivable scale.

In the United States, which produced about 130 million pigs for meat production last year, the USDA is working with state officials and industry representatives to prepare for an outbreak, organizing exercises to isolate infected farms and identify how the virus can enter production systems.

But developing effective contact tracing responses doesn’t even close the barn door after all the animals have left. It just helps us understand which direction they went. The real imperative – ever since a decade ago, when a viral outbreak of African swine fever in Eastern Europe spun out of control – has been to find a way to prevent transmission or cure the infection before it does not spread. Right now we have no answers except to slaughter hundreds of millions of pigs. And finding the funding for such critical research needs has become more difficult every year.

In 1940, the federal government channeled almost 40% of all of its research and development investment into agricultural science. Today, agricultural research funding in the United States is less than 2% of the total, and farmers must depend on geography — not science — to keep their livestock safe.

With world-class laboratories, the United States once led the world in agricultural innovation. But now we’re basically staying put, despite all the threats, from viral diseases like African swine fever to extreme weather and food poisoning outbreaks, not to mention unstable commodity markets.

The last time an epidemic of this magnitude hit American farms was the 2015 bird flu epidemic, in which more than 50 million chickens and turkeys were slaughtered to stop the spread of the disease.

This year, Chinese farmers had to kill five times that number of cattle. The tens of millions of bird corpses became a public health threat when they couldn’t be buried quickly enough – US farmers shudder at the thought of how to dispose of much larger pig corpses at this slaughter scale.

Despite the paltry funding, researchers have still made progress in determining how viruses like ASF spread. For example, a team of scientists from Kansas State University has determined threshold levels of contamination for the virus to be transmitted through animal feed. The team needed two grants to conduct the research, one from a federally funded industry group and the other from the state of Kansas. Previous research at the university, which determined how to eliminate another contagious virus from pig feed, won grants from two other sources.

Eleven years ago, in an effort to revamp the way the USDA awards research grants, Congress created the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The program provides funding through a competitive process in which proposals are rigorously peer-reviewed.

AFRI was “authorized” with a $700 million budget in the 2008, 2014, and 2018 Farm Bills. But that level was never reached in the horse-trading that takes place during annual federal budget negotiations. . Too many other priorities sideline this important branch of research.

As a result, the program typically provides funding for less than a quarter of the science the program’s expert panels deem worthy. And researchers tackling critically important issues must first grapple with the question of how to get funding.

Science can solve so many of our problems, but not without regular funding. Producing food is fast becoming a Sisyphean task, with farmers scrambling to solve many of today’s insurmountable challenges before new crises push their operations back again. Agriculture cannot evolve without new advances.

Farmers will always strive to keep pushing that rock up the hill. But only new innovations, driven by scientific research, can prevent the rock from falling again.

Thomas Grumbly is President of Supporters of the Foundation for Agricultural Research. He has held senior positions in the United States Department of Agriculture, Office of Management and Budget, and Food and Drug Administration.

Lana T. Arthur