Launched in early October, the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture carries the hopes of many: Hope that NIFA will find answers to increasingly daunting questions about feeding the world, hope that agricultural science will attain the status in the United States that it deserves, hope that the institute will streamline funding for agricultural research.

“The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that food production will need to double by 2050 to meet demand, and this has to happen in an environment where our production system already is under threat,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack at a press conference announcing NIFA.

“USDA science needs to change to respond to these pressures, to ensure the sustainability of the American food, fuel, and fiber system, and to address some of America’s — and the world’s — most intractable problems. … Formed in the main from the existing Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, NIFA will be the (USDA’s) extramural research enterprise. 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.”

Few know that NIFA was an idea pushed by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) during the last farm bill write-up. In late September, D.C. Coston, vice-president for Agriculture and University Extension at North Dakota State University and a member of the APLU’s Board of Agriculture Assembly, testified before the House Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research Committee on Agriculture. It is no exaggeration to say the latest farm bill “reshaped the USDA science structure and reauthorized the many research, Extension, and teaching programs that sustain land-grant universities and related institutions” across the nation, Coston told the committee.

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities is the national association that includes all the land-grant universities and other public institutions.

Now back at his job in Fargo, Coston says Title Seven of the farm bill “essentially authorizes all the research and education done through USDA for the life of each farm bill. Most people think of the farm bill as having two big components: the commodity programs and nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Most people have no clue the farm bill has anything to do with teaching, research, Extension and related things. Well, these are key ingredients also.”

Going into the 2008 farm bill debate, the land-grant university community had proposed major changes in the management of research and education through USDA. Most of those changes made it into Title Seven, the “research title” which covers the gamut of federally-supported agricultural research, education and Extension. The biggest, says Coston, was the formation of NIFA.

“It’s very important to elevate science and education in agriculture to a status level equivalent to National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. We wanted the nation to view agriculture-related work in the same vein.”

Along with that, “we proposed that NIFA be administered by an ‘eminent scientist’ — someone with impeccable credentials. The NIFA director — who is a presidential appointment — has been named: Roger Beachy, who’s been the head of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.”

In promoting the idea of NIFA, “there was a good, strong push from the country’s land-grant community. Ultimately, I don’t think it was a massive struggle. We did have to spend a lot of time speaking to everyone about why this was the way to go. But after a while, everyone seemed to buy in — including legislators from densely populated areas.

“When we spoke, we’d say ‘agriculture is related to health. What people eat is important. If we’re producing high-quality, highly nutritious food, it’s good for the country.’ I think we did a good job of tying together varied rural and urban interests.”

University researchers often have difficulty obtaining funding for agriculture science. Does Coston see that being alleviated with NIFA or will it remain a problem?

“It’ll continue to be an issue. But on Oct. 1 we received notification of what the conference committee on ag appropriations is doing for fiscal 2010. They did make some significant enhancements related to agricultural research, Extension and so on. Both chambers of Congress have passed the bill and it currently awaits the President’s signature.”

Coston says Rajiv Shah, new undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics, will be a friend to agricultural scientists. Shah’s position also carries the title of “chief scientist” for USDA.

“He’s charged with coordinating research activities throughout all of USDA. Not necessarily administering everything, but coordinating. So, he’ll be considering the Forest Service and other entities doing research.

“They’re trying to pull down the proverbial stovepipes. When Shah was being confirmed, he’d bought into one of the concepts we pushed: to double the nation’s investment in agricultural science and education over the five years of the farm bill.”

There are two types of funding. Capacity funding — formerly known as ‘formula funding’ — goes directly to the land grant institutions to support both Extension and experiment station efforts.

“Needless to say, we believe that this funding is very important. There are modest increases in all those budget lines for 2010. These are sorely needed to sustain the long-term work of our faculty and staff working toward new discoveries and to insure a ready cadre of people to respond quickly to new opportunities or a crisis.”

The really big growth, though, is in the “major competitive program” — or the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative — to be managed by NIFA. The initiative has been provided a $61 million increase for a total a bit over $262 million.

“In recent years, when people from institutions across the country submitted proposals, about 13 to 15 percent were actually funded. Those on the review panels say at least double that percentage is high-quality and should be supported.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is grow both the capacity funding — which allows faculty and staff to be in place — and also grow the competitive funding so a higher proportion of projects can be supported. That’s why we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Four new programs were created under the 2008 farm bill: Organic agriculture research, specialty crops in Extension (usually research on fruits and vegetables), biomass research and development, and a program to provide educational support for beginning farmers and ranchers. The four are to receive “mandatory” funding.

“In the congressional process, there are effectively two types of legislation: authorizing and appropriations. Authorizing legislation says ‘Congress believes this program could have great value to the nation. We authorize its creation and the expenditure of up to’ — then they usually attach a certain amount of money. On an annual basis, Congress allocates money to those authorizations through the appropriations committees.”

Essentially, the agriculture committees are authorizers. So, the farm bill is actually authorizing legislation having to do with USDA programs for a five-year period.

“Once you get into funding, there are two types: mandatory and discretionary. Mandatory are things that Congress has actually declared ‘we’ll do this no matter what.’ Discretionary is exactly what it sounds like.

“Many of the things that we think of as government fall under the discretionary category. Mandatory typically includes things like defense, social support programs, Medicare/Medicaid, payment on the national debt, etc. Some 65 to 70 percent of the U.S. government expenditures are on mandatory programs.”

It’s easy to see why everyone wants their program in the mandatory column. But in the world of bureaucrats, warns Coston, mandatory doesn’t mean unequivocal. In fact, he told the subcommittee that in the past, mandatory funds have been “routinely raided” to pay for other things.

“You may wonder ‘why would university folks get mired in congressional politics?’ But if you look at the way funding works, you’d understand. I’m not being diplomatic, I’m telling you what happened. The initiative for future ag and food systems was, as I recall, created in the 1998 research title tied to the 1997 farm bill.

“Anyway, they put funds in it and only supported work for one year. What ended up happening is the appropriators got fussy about it as they believe funding should be decided on an annual basis. The funding was used for other activities such as flood relief over subsequent years. We just want to say ‘if it’s mandatory, then fund the thing.’”

If carried out, Coston believes the current USDA/agriculture research set-up “will benefit agriculture and rural America. Land-grant universities and others that do agricultural research are critical components of that. We’ll be monitoring everything and if changes are needed, we’ll be making recommendations.

“What this will do is make sure we have the ability to supply the information and technology that agriculture in its broadest sense, needs; that we’ll be able to do the research and get it out to practitioners and, due to the higher education programs included in this, we’ll be able to train folks so they’re ready to take on research jobs when folks like me retire.

“That’s vitally important for our future and is why we’ve spent so much time and effort with this. It’s a vested self-interest of the United States to do this.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com