Carrie Harmon in the lab

Increasing federal investment in agricultural research

The University of Florida and 12 other prominent research institutions in the United States joined the SoAR Foundation today in calling for a surge in federal support of food and agricultural science. “Retaking the Field,” the report released by this coalition, highlights recent scientific innovations and illustrates how U.S. agricultural production is losing ground to China and other global competitors.

“Agricultural and food science research has had a profound impact on our country’s population and quality of life,” said Jackie Burns, UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences dean for research and director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station. “Continued investment in university research resources will ensure that today’s investments translate into innovation and food security for future generations. The SoAR Foundation publication highlights success stories in agricultural research that will improve the future lives of our citizens.”

“Retaking the Field” examines the importance of agriculture and its related industries to the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this sector was responsible for nearly one in 10 jobs in 2014 and contributed $835 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product. Even though every public dollar invested in agricultural research provides $20 in economic returns, the federal budget for agricultural research has remained flat for decades. Today, the U.S. trails China in both agricultural production and public research funding.

The report features Carrie Harmon, director of the Florida Plant Diagnostic Center at UF/IFAS. “The Florida Plant Diagnostic Center is one of the public faces of the University of Florida, assisting growers, pest management professionals, homeowners and others with plant disease issues,” Harmon said. “We give research-based management recommendations for the diseases we diagnose, so we are an immediate conduit to the taxpayers for UF/IFAS agricultural research.”

In addition to helping others manage plant diseases, the Center helps detect diseases before they can spread and cause bigger problems. “Plant diseases are a bit like cancer — if you detect the cancer very early on, you have a much better chance of removing all of it and living a full life,” Harmon said. “Only by coupling accurate and early detection with research-based management do we get healthy crops, a healthy environment, healthy people, and a healthy bottom line.”

Harmon and a few other featured researchers will be in Washington, D.C., June 22 and 23 to discuss their research with government policymakers and the media.

“Researchers are discovering incredible breakthroughs, helping farmers produce more food using fewer resources, and keeping our meals safe and nutritious,” said Thomas Grumbly, president of the SoAR Foundation. “However, the science behind agriculture and food production is starved of federal support at a time of unprecedented challenges. A new surge in public funding is essential if our agricultural system is going to meet the needs of American families in an increasingly competitive global market.”

Farming has never been an easy endeavor, and today’s challenges to agricultural production are daunting. The historic California drought continues and U.S. production is also threatened by new pests and pathogens, like the 2015 Avian Influenza outbreak that led to the culling of 48 million birds in 15 states and $2.6 billion in economic damages.

“Every year, the director of national intelligence testifies before Congress that our national security is threatened by hunger in unstable regions,” said Tom Grumbly. “As the number of people on our planet continues to grow, we must produce more food. This cannot be done with yesterday’s science. We need a larger infusion of cutting-edge technologies.”

By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

Sources: Jackie Burns, 352-392-1784, jkbu@ufl.edu

Carrie Harmon, 352-392-1795, clharmon@ufl.edu

UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones