Farm Food Facts

Importance of Agriculture Research Funding

December 09, 2020 USFRA Episode 100
Farm Food Facts
Importance of Agriculture Research Funding
Show Notes Transcript

Today – we talk about the importance of agriculture research funding. Our guest today is one of the most insightful people I know, Dr. Sally Rockey, the inaugural Executive Director of the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR). Prior to this role, Sally was a leader in federal research, overseeing the operations of the extramural research programs in both agriculture and biomedicine. She spent almost twenty years with the US Department of Agriculture, where she held several positions within the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service including head of Competitive Research Grants and Chief Information Officer. From there, she spent eleven years with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As the NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, she led the operations of the world’s largest extramural research program. Returning to her roots in agriculture, she has seen FFAR through its startup phase and witnessed it grow into a significant force in the agriculture research community through the development of innovative private-public research partnerships. Rockey received her doctorate degree in entomology from the Ohio State University and did postgraduate work at University of Wisconsin. She has devoted her career to improving people’s lives through research and continues this mission today.

Phil:

US farmers and ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 honor the harvest forum . Welcome to the U S farmers and ranchers in action, weekly video podcast for December 9th, 2020. I'm your host, Phil Lempert. Today, We talk about the importance of agriculture research funding. Our guests is one of the most insightful people that I know Dr. Sally Rocky , the inaugural executive director of the foundation for food and agriculture research, otherwise known as far prior to this, Sally was a leader in federal research, overseeing the operations of the extramural research programs in both agriculture and biomedicine. She spent almost 20 years with the USDA where she held several positions with the cooperative state research education and extension service, including head of competitive research grants and chief information officer. From there. She spent 11 years with NIH and as the deputy director for extramural research, she led the operations of the world's largest extramural research program and returning to her roots in agriculture. She has seen far through its startup phase and witnessed it grow into a significant force in the agriculture research community, through the development of innovative private public research partnerships. Sally received her doctorate degree in entomology from the Ohio state university and did post-graduate work at the university of Wisconsin. She has devoted her entire career to improving people's lives, to research and continues this mission today, Sally was one of our first guests here on farm food facts, and we're delighted to have her back Sally, welcome to farm food facts.

Sally:

Great. It's great to be here, Phil. Thanks for having me back. It doesn't seem like it's been almost a year since we talked last time.

Phil:

I know. And you know, I probably said this before , um, and you'll appreciate this because of, you know, your education. I am one of those people who hate bugs. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I just do, they freak me out.

Sally:

I'm giving you a little secret when I was a kid. I hated bugs t oo, t hat I was very afraid of ' em, but, u m, they are the most fascinating animal honors. And so they're really fun to learn about. Yeah. U m, I imagine the more that you learn about them, the less fearful you would become a bsolutely true. And t hey're just so unique and beautiful and interesting. So they're a wonderful, u h, subject of study.

Phil:

Um , I actually, and then we'll get to the important topic, but I actually bought a book , um, that was a very famous photographer that the book is like this thick and only shot , um, insects and bugs and , uh, really close. And the beauty of them was dumbfounding, which is why I bought the book. Even though every time I turn the page, I go, Ooh, I'm glad that's not really here. So, so let's change the topic away from bugs and to agriculture research. Um, this is a topic that certainly we talked a lot about it on are the harvest , uh, the need for ag research, why it's so important for future harvest. Tell us about that.

Sally:

Well, agriculture research is really critical. Agriculture is in a different phase right now, it's in a technology driven phase. And so research provides that foundation for agriculture just to advance as quickly as possible. So agricultural sciences are very sophisticated now and we're learning not only everything we can about plants and animals that are the basis for agriculture, but also about the new technologies that are really driving innovation. So in order for us to have , um, practices that work both economically for farms, as well as preserve our environment, we must have them do a science-based . So we need to learn everything we can, that can be translated to the farmers and ranchers to make agriculture as productive as possible.

Phil:

So let's talk about money. Um, where's the money coming from for this ag research? And do we have enough?

Sally:

Well, I would contend, you know, I've been working in the era of agriculture for almost 35 years and I would contend that there's not enough funding for agriculture. If you compare it to other sectors and particularly the biomedical sector, we only get a small fraction of the funding, for example , uh , the federal , uh , portfolio of R and D agriculture. Those that , that funding that is provided to the government , um, is only 2% of the entire R and D budget. So we need much more of that, but it's still a significant amount. So the federal government has about a little over $3 billion a year in agriculture research and the private sector actually puts quite a bit in agricultural research. In fact, they eclipse the public sector investment in agricultural research, and then there's other organizations like ours, which are foundations and others that support a science. So that's where most of the funding comes from.

Phil:

Let's talk about the mission , um, of the ag climate partnerships that are taking place now. Um, you know, we, we talk a lot , uh, to farmers and frankly, what I've heard from farmers during COVID-19 is they used to talk to the farm next to them and trade ideas. But now they're talking to, you know, farmers all over the country and in fact, in some cases all over the world, so we're starting to see partnerships , uh, take place ad hoc. Uh , but what about those formal ag climate partnerships what's going on there? Well, you know , um,

Sally:

Climate change is impacting our sector probably more than any other sector. So it's really important that we understand that nexus between agriculture and climate. And we believe very strongly that while agriculture does contribute to things such as greenhouse gas emissions , we are really the only sector that can actually mitigate climate change. And we believe that not only is , uh , as a community, we can be net zero for greenhouse gas emissions. We can also go go net negative. But one of the issues for us is that we have so many organizations, not only in the private sector, the public sector, universities and other groups and farming groups themselves that are working in this space that we tend to be very fragmented. So what we're trying to do with the climate partnership is bring all these really talented people who are working in this space together. And then co-create with scientists and farmers, a solution to , uh , uh, having agriculture mitigate climate change through reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. So it really is a , uh , absolutely large effort. We try to acquaint us somewhat with the human genome effort, where it took the private sector and the public sector and the academic world to all work together in order to make great progress. We think we can get a lot of economies of scale. We can accelerate things like we've never seen before if we can all come together. And I'll just give you an example, though, we did a landscape analysis with our partners who are the , the us farmers and ranchers in action, as well as the world global the world, a farming organization. We did an assessment of just the amount of projects and people that are working in the greenhouse gas reduction space in agriculture, as well as , uh, an assessment of the data and data sets that are available. And it was incredible. Thousands of people and projects are ongoing in this space, everybody doing great work , um, in this space, but it again is very fragmented. So our effort in the ag climate partnership is to bring this all together, talk together, walk together and make progress together.

Phil:

There, there's no question , uh , that doing that is, is the right thing, is the important thing. How do we do it? How do we consolidate all this data , um, to together to be able to , um, be able to vet it properly and then, you know, have farmers and ranchers , um, understand it and put it into practice.

Sally:

So we need the greatest minds in the world to come together. And our plan is to do a number of steps. First of all, we want to build a new platform that will consolidate data. It doesn't mean that we have to actually bring the data together, but we have to connect the data. And those data then will be , uh , translated into , um, designing practices that can give you the most bang for the buck. In other words, what practices are going to work in order to, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as much as we can, both in the animal production system, as well as crop systems, but the important aspect of that is to work with farmers so that we can be co-creating these solutions. So what will happen is as we develop the science, the farmers will have input into the science. Then we'll take it out to be tested and give us all the feedback necessary in order to make changes to this. Uh , um , once we do that, then we need to work on implementing the great solutions that we found. And again, that is a really , uh , uh, effort that has to be driven from the farm up. So the farmers are absolutely essential to be , uh , strong participants in this whole program, but that's the idea. You build a platform, you build an annual , also identify the gaps. So there's a lot of gas in the science that we need to have filled. So we're going to also identify those gaps and, and research that , um , will help fill those gaps or other kinds of projects that will help fill those gaps. And one of the issues. So I'm sorry, go ahead.

Phil:

Sorry . Uh , yeah. Um, I, I'm going to put you on the spot for a second. Uh, you mentioned these gaps off the top of your head. What are some of the gaps , um, that, that are occurring now that you wish was, were being researched?

Sally:

Well, one of the gaps , um, is definitely the metrics surrounding carbon sequestration. As you know, the three greenhouse gases that we're interested in are carbon , um, uh, uh, Messiaen and nitrous oxide. And so with Carmen , for example, the measurement of carbon to not only know how much you can sequester, but what is actually the potential for sequestering carbon is still a lot of issues. We measure it in different ways. Um, of course it's going to very much depend on what kind of crop you're , you're , um , uh , producing what the land is, what the soil is, what geographic graphic area you're in, what the weather is. Those kinds of things are all going to impact that. So getting a great handle, it's a big data project, right? It's going to take not only collecting all these data, but able to be used , artificial intelligence, deep learning, and all of this, to be able to get the answers we have. So that's one area is just metrics and measurement of all these greenhouse gases to come up with a standardized way that we could do it so that we know will when we get there. Right. If we don't know what the potential first pharmacy frustration is, for example, how do we know if we're, if we got there, so we really need to work on that piece of it.

Phil:

So, you know, we've talked a lot about research, but what are some other areas for partnership and collaboration that agriculture should be looking at?

Sally:

Um, well, we're in the science area. So the, all of the work that's involving a science of course, is an area of collaboration, but really across the entire food chain, we really , we need to work together. And one of the areas that is cropping up right now and has been amplified by the COVID pandemic is that area between food and agriculture and nutrition, that is a huge area that we must pay attention to. Um , because we know, and it was painfully obvious, painfully obvious during COVID that many of the co-morbidities of COVID had to do with the food that we eat. And so, but it's , it's , it's somewhat ironic. I feel that we don't really talk about nutrition and agriculture together. It seems very strange that oftentimes they'd be forced fit , right? You have the forest , but nutrition and agriculture together. So we need to understand how, how agriculture as we're producing , um, the foods that we eat, how that impacts the overall nutrition and then vice versa, right? What, how do we know the composition of food? Do we have access to that healthy food, et cetera? So that's a big exploding area and we have to pay attention to that because we don't know where the next pandemic is going to come. And if it's anything like this pandemic , uh, we , we have to be better prepared for what we've done. So that connection between food and agriculture and that involves the entire supply chain. So imagine the food companies are very interested in producing foods . Nutritious farmers are interested in, in , um , producing those foods that are needed to provide a nutritious diet, but at the same time, they have to be economically viable. So how do we translate all that into the economic piece of it, the nutritional piece of it and the production piece of it, it all has to come together. The other area I would say is so anodic, which is really that intersection between animal disease and humans and human disease. And we don't know where the next pandemic is going to come from, but likely it is going to be , um , through an animal disease. So African swine fever or something that's going to come, and we need to understand that relationship is called one health. It's really one health is the understanding of the connection between animal disease and human disease. And that is very important in our agricultural system and to our , um, uh, human health as well. So I believe that's the next big thing, this one becoming,

Phil:

Yeah, I think both of those points are really important because I think , um, our food supply and, you know, there's a lot better than I, but our food supply has been driven , uh, for production. How much can we make? How cheap can we make the food? Um, and , and we really, haven't talked a lot about that interconnection between , uh , paying a fair price for food and getting good, nutritious food out of it. So, you know, that would be great. And certainly we've heard the stories about COVID-19 coming from a bat . Um, so to your second point, we, we really need to understand that , uh , much better than we have.

Sally:

And in fact, the science, if you think about the science over the years, the science that we've tried to understood, for example, the genetics of plants and animals, I've really been driven towards increasing yield, right? Yep . This is totally changing now, though, because we're looking at two other things that are so important. One, how do you use genetics and breeding to enhance nutritional quality? That's really important. And then the other is to either make it resilient to environmental change or to help mitigate environmental change. So we're really looking at other things other than yield, which has been our main thing. We always want to keep yield up. That's important because for one thing, the more yield you have on less land, the more you preserve the environment. Right? So, but that always will be in the back of our mind, but there's a whole new world out there now in the genetics world to try to use breeding, to enhance nutritional quality and to help , uh, enhance environmental resilience.

Phil:

Yeah. Both really important topics. Uh , let's talk about FARs challenge areas. Um, how do they determine the topics of new challenge areas and what are some successful products that you've funded and emerging areas of ag research that, that you're looking at funding now?

Sally:

Well, we have six challenge areas and they range all the way from , um, the soil health, which has been one of our mainstays . We've been funding. We're one of the central , um , organizations that funds , um, really innovative soil health projects, all the way to urban agriculture and everything in between. So we have water, animal systems, plant systems , um, and , uh, the health agriculture nexus. And so those all encompass our six , uh , challenge areas. And , uh, so we have, we have actually changed our challenge areas, but because they are very broad, we haven't changed them a lot. We do see the programming within our challenge areas does change quite often. And so , um, if you look at some of the very interesting things we've done is that , uh, we have a , uh , we create some consortium that are within each of those challenge areas. We have one in almost every challenge area that we have. Um, but a number of our very interesting ones are we have our hip , uh, hip , uh, consortium, which is called precision indoor plants. And that's really about how do we get more different types of crops to be able to be grown indoors right now, most of the indoor plants are either tomatoes or leafy greens, but we could do a lot more with that. Um , so that's an interesting one. We have an antibiotic stewardship , um, uh , consortium called , uh, Picasa , which is international consortium on antibiotic stewardship. And it's really looking for ways that we can manage antibiotics in a much better way that preserves not only the health of the animals, but the environment. And of course our water area is really key and a new and growing area for us because not only do we want to , um , improve the quality of water, but we also want to reduce the quantity of water that we , uh, we create. So we have , um, but we take ideas for programming within those challenge area from all sources, many come from us, some come from our partners, some come from the , um , others in the community. Uh, and, but the key for us is that we can generate key partnerships because our organization, while we are federally funded, must match every dollar with non-federal funds. So it's really important to find partners who not only share our goals and objectives, but can help , uh, share in the funding of these projects, but by doing so, we really leverage those federal dollars. And we've actually matched more than one-to-one. We match one to 1.4 now. And so we're getting for every federal dollar spent, we've almost spent a dollar and a half on, on our match. So it's been really wonderful. We also then work in the very basic areas as well. So , uh , we have a project with the Gates foundation called the right project, which is realizing efficiencies and photos realizing increases in photosynthetic efficiencies. That is really an amazing project because a very large project at the university of Illinois with partners around the world and with the USDA. And it's a basic project to tease out every little thing about photosynthesis, but in the end, it yields incredibly applied, applied answers because it's led to dramatically increasing yields by manipulating photosynthesis and also dramatically increasing water use efficiency in plants by manipulating photosynthesis. So this , this is one of the joys of agricultural science. It seems very, very esoteric some of the studies, but in agriculture, basic studies can be applied almost immediately. So there's really a gray area between basic and applied. And the photo synthesis project is an example of that.

Phil:

Uh , Sally, I wasn't aware of the PIP project. Um, and I'd like to just ask you one question about that. Um, what I'm hearing from a lot of , um, real estate developers , uh , is that those huge office buildings in New York and Chicago throughout the country , um, are empty. Um, and you know, they're not going to ever be full again because more people are working from home. Um, they're saying that there's a great opportunity to do indoor farming , um, in, and taking some space from these office buildings. And that way you're growing, whether it's leafy greens, tomatoes, and other crops , um, right near where the people are. So you're going to have reduced transportation, reduce the carbon footprint of it, have fresher products, have products that grow three times faster because the lights are on 24 seven , um, and probably even a lower cost. Um, what do you think about that?

Sally:

Yeah , absolutely. That's actually been a , um, uh , a, an emphasis, not in our PIP project, but in thinking about how urban environments plan for the future, right. Even before COVID , um, there were empty buildings in many urban environments, and these are possibilities, not only for producing nutritious food , um , closer to home, but also to give , um , job opportunities to people. And so one of the things about indoor agriculture, it's never going to take over outdoor agriculture , um , where the sheer quantity of the amount of crops that we can produce in the outdoors. But if you think about an indoor agriculture provides you one really , um, essential characteristic, which is you can produce plants in a very, very consistent manner. So you can, and you can do all sorts of things to manipulate the lights and they , they inputs in order to get the nutritional components you want, or the growth speed that you want and all of those kinds of things. So you have some advantages on the indoor environment. So taking a manage of what's happened now with many buildings that have been vacated because of COVID or other , um, other , um , situations that are happening in cities is something , uh , that , uh, indoor agriculture is looking to, to take advantage of. Um, but I would say that it's, it's something that we also encourage the cities, and actually we're going to probably start a project in this area to see how we include agriculture, not just indoor agriculture, but all agriculture in urban planning. So when you think about it, there's lots of opportunities for agriculture , um, within cities and at the outskirts of cities. And so if, if, when they're planning communities and planning their , um, um, urban activities, if they put agriculture early in the planning process, it probably can go a long way to promoting agriculture in urban settings. So we're very interested in this.

Phil:

Yeah, Sally , you know, every time I speak with you, whether it's through the podcast or in person and so on , I always am amazed , uh , how much, you know, how much I learn , um , from you. So, so thank you for that. Um, one last question , uh, with all the research that we're talking about, how does far , uh, get that ag research into the hands of farmers ranchers, you mentioned , uh, earlier that taking this information, getting it executed, making change, what's that process look like?

Sally:

Well, of course we have requirements for publishing and things like that , um , that are important, but that is, you know, I think all , um, federal agencies for example require that. But one of the things that we do is we include farmers and ranchers from the very onset of what we do. So on all of our advisory committees, we have farmers and ranchers on our board of directors. We have farmers and ranchers in the production of, I mean, in the projects that we fund, we, we ask how this is going to be translated to farmers and ranchers. So many times there's farmers and ranchers actually included them in projects. It's very critical for us to do that in the case of where we can bring , um, data and results together in one central place. We'll do that as well. And that's of course, one of the issues , one of the important parameters of , um, of the ag climate partnership, but for us, that's really essential is to be able to not only have those, those , um , results available to farmers, but the results translated. It's not, it's not worth anything to just give data out to the public. You really need to analyze it and translate it. And that's, what's really important. And actually farmers and ranchers can help us translate those data, those, those data and the results in a much faster way. So it is really core to what we do to have farmers and ranchers all from the beginning, all the way to the end. And that's the best way to get information out there.

Phil:

Well, as always Dr. Sally Rockey, what can I say? Uh , but thank you for joining us today on farm food facts. You've just given us so much great information. Thank you.

Sally:

Thanks so much for having me.

Phil:

US Farmers and Ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 honor the harvest forum. Our movement sponsors, United soybean board and national pork board. Our presenting sponsors, Wells Fargo, Cargil and DMI. Our Platinum Sponsor the Native American Agriculture Fund. Our Gold sponsors, Bader-Rutter, Bayer, Corteva, Dairy West, Edelman, Ernst & Young, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, frog, McDonald's, Nebraska Soybean Board, and Nutrien. Our Silver Sponsors Cobank and OCP North America. Our bronze sponsor, Nestle Purina. Our Copper Sponsor, Ruan. And our donor sponsor, Tyson. For more on all things, food and agriculture. Please visit @usfarmersandranchers.org. Also be sure to look out for us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers and on Twitter at USFRA until next time.