New USDA research agency already wants more money

The Obama administration launched a new agricultural research institute Thursday, but farm lobbyists and others warned that its success depends on whether Congress agrees to substantially increase funding for farm research.

Otherwise, the observers say, the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture will become mired in decades-old battles over formula funds for land grant universities, competitive grants favored by elite schools and congressional earmarks.

In response to declines in agricultural research, Congress created NIFA in the 2008 farm bill in hopes of giving a farm agency the same stature as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

In a ceremony at the National Press Club attended by scientists and lobbyists, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said: "It is no exaggeration to say that NIFA will be a research 'start-up' company. We will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to generate real results for the American people."

Vilsack said that Roger Beachy, a plant scientist from the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, will head NIFA.

Vilsack and his undersecretary for research, education and economics, Rajiv Shah, noted that President Obama has proposed spending 3 percent of GDP on all science, but neither Vilsack nor Shah mentioned the size of the USDA research request in the fiscal 2011 budget. Last week Shah told a House Agriculture subcommittee he was not authorized to answer questions on budget requests.

The fiscal 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill approved by the House and Senate this week included $2.76 billion for research, or $174 million above fiscal 2009. Of the total, $1.25 billion went to the Agricultural Research Service and $1.34 billion to NIFA, including an increase of nearly $61 million for competitive agricultural research grants.

Vilsack said the institute would focus on five areas -- global food security and hunger, climate change, sustainable energy, childhood obesity and food safety.

Shah has emphasized that he wants to commission "breakthrough" research by emphasizing a few select areas, similar to the approach of the Seattle-based Gates Foundation where he worked previously. But he said USDA would continue to support research on local agricultural problems such as wheat scab in the Midwest. "We realize production systems are local," Shah said.

Organic and small farm advocates have criticized Beachy's appointment because he supports genetic modification of seeds. Beachy said he hopes those groups will learn that he is "pragmatic, not an ideologue," but added that he regrets that the definition of organic food excludes genetic modification. Beachy said he shares with organic advocates the goal of reducing use of pesticides.

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