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Published September 19, 2011, 11:06 AM

Earmark-style authority needed for ag?

WASHINGTON — With the end of earmarks, the Agriculture Department may need to ask Congress for the kind of authority that the National Science Foundation has to initiate new research facilities on its own, Agriculture Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Catherine Woteki said in a wide-ranging interview with Agweek.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — With the end of earmarks, the Agriculture Department may need to ask Congress for the kind of authority that the National Science Foundation has to initiate new research facilities on its own, Agriculture Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Catherine Woteki said in a wide-ranging interview with Agweek.

For decades, Congress has used earmarks to steer money toward individual congressional districts, but the practice has become associated with corruption and questionable spending, and this past year, Congress eliminated the earmarks and the money that it directed toward individual members’ districts and the institutions within them. The National Science Foundation has the statutory authority to use a competitive grants process to identify the highest-priority research facilities and also to buy specific types of research equipment, Woteki said. If Congress no longer is going to use earmarks, she added, USDA officials are considering whether to seek that type of authority.

Woteki, who was undersecretary for food safety in the Clinton administration, dean of agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames and global director at Mars Inc. before assuming her current position, said that her philosophy on agricultural research “starts with the premise that this is the most exciting time to be in agricultural research and the natural resources sciences” because there are so many new technologies. But, she said, one also has to ask whether those technologies will enable the world to produce enough food to feed 9 billion people by 2050 in the face of variable weather conditions and whether that food supply will be safe and keep people in good health. The United States and other countries will need agricultural research budgets to answer those questions, she said.

Already feeling cuts

Congress’ decision to cut earmarks in this year’s budget has meant that USDA’s agricultural research programs already have taken a 10 percent cut, which has caused “severe” difficulties with agricultural research, she said. USDA already has had to cut back on agricultural statistics gathering and stop construction on facilities such as a poultry research center in Georgia, she said.

Woteki said she sees a continuing need for both the “formula” funds” now known as “capacity funds” that go to land grant colleges automatically and for competitive grants that go to the land grant schools and other institutions for various forms of basic research. Although some people have questioned having a land grant college in every state and so many USDA research stations, Woteki said she does not think there is much duplication in these research programs.

Much agricultural research goes unappreciated, she said. While the Energy Department might look like the likely place to do research on biofuels, only USDA has the germplasm collections that are needed for research on what crops can be grown as the basic material for biofuels, she said.

“When you think about specific crops, citrus is grown predominantly in two states, many of the specialty crops are grown predominantly in just a few states in one region,” she said. “I see that there needs to be a continued infrastructure in support of those,” she added.

Food security

One facility that appears to have survived the cutbacks in earmarks is the research station under construction at Kansas State University in Manhattan to replace the one on Plum Island off New York state, where research is done on foot-and-mouth disease. Although USDA employees will work in that facility, it is being built by the Homeland Security Department established after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Keeping the research on foot-and-mouth disease and other animal diseases that do not exist in North America on Plum Island has allowed the United States to claim that those diseases do not exist in the United States, and there has been controversy over whether the facility in Kansas will be safe.

Asked whether she was comfortable of the dread disease research facilities from Plum Island to Kansas, Woteki did not answer directly, but said, “Certainly these high-level containment facilities can be safely operated. We know that from our own experience at Plum Island as well as at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa.” Woteki added that panels appointed by the National Academy of Sciences are making recommendations for the safety of the site and that the “final step” is a requirement that a future secretary of agriculture will have to issue a permit for the research if he or she is comfortable with it.

Woteki maintains that the success of U.S. agriculture in producing safe and reasonably priced food is the reason that it has been so hard to convince Congress to provide money for agricultural research in recent years. In contrast, she said, China has dramatically increased its research budget and is focusing on genetics, genomics and biotechnology. Woteki said there are many cooperative projects among countries on individual crops such as wheat, but that there needs to be a forum for international discussion of the agricultural research agenda.

“I think we’re at a daunting recognition in this country of the fact that food and the related water issues are likely to be as big a national security issue in our future as our concerns over the last 50 years on nuclear proliferation and terrorism,” she concluded.

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