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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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George Nethercutt Jr.: Why Washington needs research in the 2018 Farm Bill

George Nethercutt Jr.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is visiting Washington state on his “Back to Our Roots” tour around the country. His visit coincides with the reauthorization of the 2014 Farm Bill, legislation that covers everything from research supporting our state’s agriculture industry and conservation to programs like crop insurance and the supplemental nutrition assistance program also known as SNAP.

Funding for agricultural research and development under the farm bill is one of Washington state’s top priorities as it supports more than 300 types of crops grown and harvested across our state. However, in the 2014 bill, funding for agriculture R&D made up only 0.2 percent of total funds. While this fraction of a percentage may seem inconsequential, it’s crucial to the food security, health and global competitiveness of our state’s diverse agricultural and global trade sectors. Since Washington state farmers do not often conduct research individually, university agriculture research funding is vital.

The first farm bill was adopted during the Great Depression. Over the years, farmers have benefited from breakthroughs in agricultural innovation funded by the bill – from robotic equipment to temperature sensors. In turn, American consumers have received better quality, more diverse and less expensive food while American growers have earned a better livelihood. The latest farm bill is designed to preserve and promote this mutually beneficial exchange to advance the quality of life for all Americans.

Cutting-edge technologies are critical to the agricultural economy and are often a product of the fundamental scientific research conducted at our nation’s research universities. Basic research principles have the laid the groundwork for agricultural innovation – from precision agriculture to detecting viruses impacting fruit trees, potatoes, grains, wheat, hops and grapes.

The importance of fundamental agricultural research is not lost on our elected federal officials. Due to the support of Washington’s congressional delegation, Washington State University is ranked No. 1 in U.S. Department of Agriculture R&D expenditures in the latest reporting period and has a long track record of receiving funds from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, one of USDA’s three in-house research agencies. From research improving plant nutrition to preserving harvest quality to predicting human decisions about resource use, WSU researchers are using every penny of NIFA funding to benefit Washington’s nearly 40,000 farmers and the $51 billion industry they support.

WSU is also a proud member of The Science Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustaining federal support for fundamental research. As a WSU alumnus and recipient of TSC’s Champion of Science Award, I’ve seen firsthand how basic and applied agriculture research can turn into a foundational discovery and lead to innovative technologies like a new crop varietal or improvements in farming practices. USDA research has really helped Eastern Washington farmers.

Since the last reauthorization of the farm bill, WSU has been awarded more than $103 million in USDA funds. That money has been put to good use. With the nine local research farms WSU maintains, and the 3,000 students enrolled in its academic programming annually, WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Science is a powerhouse of agricultural knowledge.

WSU’s research doesn’t just benefit Washingtonians, it helps all Americans. Approximately 50 percent of U.S. annual GDP growth can be attributed to increases in U.S. innovation. With agriculture, food and related industries contributing $992 billion to the U.S. GDP, America should increase investment in fundamental agricultural research. It’s simple: Innovation in agriculture pays dividends, and we need robust federal fundamental research funding to spur that innovation.

Unfortunately, as is the case in other areas of scientific advancement, the U.S. is losing its foothold as the clear front-runner in agricultural innovation. In 2013, China nearly doubled U.S. investment in agricultural research. In addition, the recent tariffs imposed by China will hurt our farmers. If we’re going to maintain our status as a global agriculture leader then we need to support and invest in the fundamental research that will yield transformational results.

As the primary source of federal funding for agricultural science, and given that the majority of federally funded research takes place at America’s research universities, it’s crucial that funding for fundamental research programs is maintained through the farm bill. The health of our agricultural and higher education systems, and local economies across the country, depend on it.

As Secretary Perdue visits our state with congresswoman McMorris Rodgers and meets with local farmers, business owners and WSU students and researchers, this simple but important message is key: A farm bill that supports fundamental research is a farm bill that supports Washington state.

George Nethercutt Jr. is the founder and chairman of The George Nethercutt Civics Foundation and was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2005, representing Washington’s 5th Congressional District, where he served on the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Agriculture and the House Science Committee.