With a federal deficit bursting at the seams, lawmakers in Washington are looking not only at how much money the federal government spends, but also at what the federal government is spending its money on. Government programs put in place when a very different sentiment was governing this country are in peril, at the mercy of proposed federal budget cuts driven by ultra conservatives and libertarians. Programs built upon the concept of pubic good—the idea that we as a society have a responsibility to the elderly, the poor, the sick, and to our farmers that grow our food—are at risk. The irony that those pushing this agenda have claimed the moniker “Tea Party” smacks in the face of those who crafted the U.S. Constitution. James Madison, one of its primary authors, wrote: “The public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued.”
I was on the phone the other day with Dr David Marshall, public wheat breeder and pathologist with the USDA’s Plant Science Research Unit of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Raleigh, North Carolina. We were discussing the proposed budget cuts that threaten to do away with the ARS. Dr Marshall is the lead researcher for the Uniform Bread Wheat Trials launched in 2002 breeding for regionally-adapted bread wheat varieties that can withstand the higher rainfall and humid conditions of the eastern U.S. He is also the U.S. leader in a global community of wheat researchers seeking sources of resistance to a new race of stem rust pathogen-- UGG99, first discovered in Uganda in 1999-- that threatens wheat production worldwide. This new pathogen is capable of overcoming most of the stem rust resistance genes in almost all of the global wheat germplasm, as in all the wheat grown around the world.
I know Dr Marshall because I am a part of a consortium of bakeries, millers, and growers in the Carolinas that are trying to establish a market for regionally produced grains. To revive the link between the farmer, miller, and baker in the Carolinas; to produce high quality organic flour with regional significance; and finally, to create a truly local loaf of bread—this has been our raison d’etre. Dr Marshall’s work on new regionally adapted bread wheat varieties has provided the backbone for our efforts. NC growers are now planting bread wheats-- both heritage varieties as well as higher yielding modern varieties and it is thanks to Dr Marshall and his team that we have access to modern varieties that can thrive in our climate. When we realized that all the rye grown in the Carolinas had been bred solely for feed and fodder and not for flour, Dr Marshall incorporated rye varieties into his trials, accessing varieties from Italy and France to test in our climate. When two young entrepreneurs interested in launching a micro-malt house (the soon-to-be Riverbend Malthouse) inquired about malting qualities of Carolina grown barley, Dr Marshall incorporated two-row barley into his trials. He responds to my emails, whether he is in Kenya, New Zealand, Pakistan, or wherever his work takes him. “It sounds noble and corny, but we want to feed every person on the planet,” he says in describing their efforts. He is accessible to the public. He is a dying breed.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century nearly all professional plant breeding was done by the USDA and Land Grant Universities (LGU). LGUs were established during Lincoln’s administration. Creating LGUs and cooperative extension agencies meant taking the university to the people, assisting farmers with research and breeding to help them solve on-farm issues. All of these institutions were established with a public-minded spirit. It is a very different picture now. Public breeders have become an endangered species as private companies with more money and fewer factors to consider have pushed out practically all of the public corn and soybean breeders; wheat being the red-headed stepchild-- not as easy for the private sector to profit by-- still has its Dr Marshalls, but proposed budget cuts threaten to do away with or greatly affect our public breeding programs. A June press release issued by House Conservatives asserts, “Many of the functions of the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture could be consolidated or accomplished through private-sector efforts” And yet, private companies and public breeders are not interchangeable. Private companies do all of their breeding in the Midwest, home to mega agri-business. Diseases are not the same in the various regions of the United States. Although testing of varieties is done in different regions, it is short lived, with the intention of assessing best yield. Also, private companies want fewer and fewer varieties because each variety costs them money, and for private companies, money is the bottom line. Dr Marshall’s elite plots-- those varieties that have made the cut and are being selected for public release-- contain one hundred and thirty different varieties of wheat. Growers are encouraged to plant more than one variety to mitigate risks posed by weather and unforeseen disease. Public breeders are breeding for disease resistance and regional adaptivness. From the UDSA-ARS website, “Our job is finding solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day, from field to table.”
I asked Dr Marshall if he had a sense of the how much his budget may be cut. He said he really didn’t know—that it could be anywhere from no cuts at all to a complete wiping out their program. One thing is clear—there is a very real sentiment coming from an outspoken faction on Capital Hill that wants to see a reduction in federal programs, if not the complete elimination of them.
The House already passed their version of the Ag Appropriations Bill; in that Bill, the House recommended a 15% reduction in all funding to the USDA. This Bill has now gone to the Senate, which is currently in recess. The Senate will write their own Bill, which could agree with the entire House Bill, or offer another version. Following the approval of the Senate Bill, the two versions of the Bill will go to a Conference Committee (made up of Ag Appropriations Committee members from both the House and the Senate) and a final compromise Bill will go to the President for approval or not.
And some real numbers—
The USDA-ARS Raleigh FY10 budget is $9,528,034.
The percent reductions would be:
% Reduction- Amount reduced
1%- $95, 280
A 1% reduction ($95,280) would be one technician plus approx $20,000 in materials and supplies. A 5% reduction would be the new people (3 technicians, material and supplies, travel, and all operating funds to conduct any wheat stem rust research (including funds we give to NCSU and other Universities to assist in stem rust research). A 10% reduction would include all at the 5% level plus all other technicians, other support staff, and operating dollars. A 20% reduction would be the equivalent of the entire ARS wheat research program in Raleigh.
If you feel moved to voice your concern, please contact your Senator and tell him/her how you feel.
from the ground up,
Carolina Ground, L3C