Biological research advances American agriculture

Industries large and small utilize research and technology to develop and provide goods and services to society. Now, the U.S. agriculture sector can reap more technological benefits resulting from biological research under the direction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Agriculture research has produced disease testing for livestock, specialty-crop varieties and GPS technology for farm equipment to name a few.

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), sponsored by USDA and created within the 2008 Farm Bill, established a competitive grant program to provide funding for fundamental and applied research, extension and education in food and agricultural sciences with a focus in six development areas. Grants that emphasize sustainable agriculture are preferred.

Priority Issues for Grant Applications
  1. Plant health and production and plant products
  2. Animal health and production and animal products
  3. Food safety, nutrition and health
  4. Renewable energy, natural resources and environment
  5. Agriculture systems and technology
  6. Agriculture economics and rural communities
"By focusing our resources on achievable and measurable outcomes, USDA's investment in science will help address some of America's – and the world's – intractable problems," said USDA chief scientist and director of USDA's Nation Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Robert Beachy.

"Today's announcement demonstrates USDA's commitment to supporting research, education and extension to bring about true change in areas like climate change, obesity and bioenergy."

In addition to the six priority issues for grant funding, the 2008 Farm Bill added conventional (classical) plant breeding, conventional (classical) animal breeding, renewable energy, domestic-marketing strategies and rural entrepreneurship as grant focal points.

There are also five designated primary challenge areas around which AFRI is structuring the grant program.

Challenge Areas
  1. Keep American agriculture competitive while ending world hunger
  2. Improve nutrition and end child obesity
  3. Improve food safety for all Americans
  4. Secure America’s energy future
  5. Mitigate and adapt to climate change
Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack allotted $262 million to this effort. State agricultural experiment stations, colleges and universities, university-research foundations, other research institutions and organizations, Federal agencies, national laboratories, private organizations or corporations and individuals are eligible to apply for grants. Grants are awarded on a 10-year basis and some grants are eligible for renewal upon conclusion of the term.

The benefits of research and technology to society cannot be quantified. The USDA has stepped to the plate to motivate the sustainability, efficiency, profitability and development of one of the nation’s most economically providing sectors.

Do you agree that the selected issues and challenge areas should be addressed, or are there other issues? Should more or less money be awarded for research grants? Do you think the research will result in significant technological gains?

*Photo obtained from

Workshops to stimulate American Agriculture

A series of workshops throughout the coming months will feature discussions about competition and regulatory issues in agriculture.

These all-day forums, sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Justice (DOJ), were first announced by Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack Aug. 5, 2009.

"In my travels across the country, I hear a consistent theme: producers are worried whether there is a future for them or their children in agriculture, and a viable market is an important factor in what that future looks like," said Vilsack. "These issues are difficult and complex, which is why this is so important and long overdue."

According to a USDA-issued news release, five workshops will promote dialogue among interested parties and foster learning with respect to the appropriate legal and economic analyses of these issues, as well as to listen to and learn from parties with experience in the agriculture sector.

Workshops involve farmers, ranchers, processors, consumer groups, agribusinesses, government officials and academics. This collection of stakeholders will create a forum for discussion and will ensure various industry perspectives.

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock spoke about the scope of the workshops.

"Agriculture ranks as one of the top sectors of most state economies. And while the agricultural heritage of each of our states differs—sometimes dramatically—the concerns about market concentration, transparency and effective regulation cross geographical boundaries, and are shared concerns irrespective of the crops we produce and the animals we raise."

The first workshop, held March 21 in Ankeny, Iowa, focused on “issues of concern to farmers,” including seed technology, vertical integration, market transparency and buyer power.

Brownfield posted audio from the first workshop featuring its opening commentators.

All meetings are free and open to the public. There is time allotted for public testimony at the conclusion of the workshops.

Upcoming workshops:
  • Poultry industry – May 2, in Normal, Ala. – Attention will be given to production contracts in the poultry industry, concentration and buyer power.
  • Dairy industry: June 7, in Madison, Wis. – Specific areas of focus may include concentration, marketplace transparency and vertical integration in the dairy industry.
  • Livestock industry: August 26, in Fort Collins, Colo. – Specific areas of focus will address beef, hog and other animal sectors and may include enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act and concentration.
  • Margins: December 8, in Washington, D.C. – Discussions may be about discrepancies between the prices received by farmers and the prices paid by consumers; discussions from previous workshops will be incorporated into the analysis of agriculture markets nationally.
  • Each workshop is designed to highlight the management issues facing a particular agriculture sector.

“According to many farmers and ranchers, the DOJ and USDA workshops are long overdue as an essential step to address concentration of ownership within agriculture,” stated the Kansas Rural Center.

Many in the industry consider the workshops the government’s renewed commitment to strengthening one of its premier industries, while others think that they are the first steps to moderating “Big Ag.” Holder noted that some farmers are “suffering from a lack of free and fair competition in the marketplace.”

Vilsack commented that insights gleaned from the workshops would be used in consideration of the 2012 Farm Bill. Lessons learned will be used to structure broad policies rather than develop a massive oversight system. Government officials were quick to note that potential anti-competitive practices are being studied and antitrust regulations will continually be further enforced.

“‘This is not just about farmers and ranchers,” Vilsack said. “It’s really about the survival of rural America.”

Is the format of the meetings conducive to change? Should other topics be addressed and discussed?

*Photo obtained from

Idaho follows Ohio’s animal-care initiative

Gov. Ted Strickland recently announced the appointments to Ohio’s Livestock Care Standards Board, and now legislators in the Gem State are attempting to follow suit.

The Idaho Senate has approved S.B. 1330 (24-11), which establishes the Idaho Livestock Care Standards Board. Much like in Ohio, this board will set standards for the care and welfare of farm animals in Idaho. It would be similar in structure to Ohio’s 13-member board comprising the Ohio director of agriculture, a family farmer appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, a family farmer appointed by the President of the Senate and other members knowledgeable about livestock animals.

The legislation was introduced as a pre-emptive measure to safeguard the state’s ag sector because of recent actions by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in other farm states.

“When the extreme activists come against the state of Idaho – when, not if – we will be prepared for them. We’re using the right measurements to come up with standards. This board will use science and not emotions or television,” said state Sen. Tim Corder, the bill’s sponsor.

If Idaho is looking to Ohio for guidance and direction, it should take note of Ohio’s decisive actions leading to the institution of its livestock care standards board.

Ohio’s ag-industry members raised awareness for and provided education about the accuracies of livestock and poultry-care practices using grassroots and social-media efforts. Members took advantage of speaking opportunities and were responsive without being domineering.

According to 2009 reports from the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), Idaho has 25,500 farms with 11.4 million acres of its land invested in farm production. It ranks 17th in the nation for the market value of its agricultural products. The value of its livestock and poultry was almost $3.4 million, with cattle being the state’s leading livestock commodity.

On March 1, the Idaho legislature deemed cockfighting operation punishable with up to five years in prison and $50,000 in fines. It would also boost fines for misdemeanor animal cruelty and torture to a maximum of one year in jail and $9,000 in fines. On the coattails of this legislation came the issue of animal-care oversight.

In a Feedstuff’s article, Corder said the board is needed in anticipation of egg producers relocating their operations from California, where conventional egg production will become illegal because of a 2008 HSUS ballot measure. Idaho has promoted the state to California egg producers, and Corder said Idaho needs to set standards before HSUS attempts to influence animal-welfare laws on the state.

"We'll see Idaho agriculture on the television at six o'clock," said Corder. "It's a lot more comfortable if we have this in place than six months from now when we have 10 million chickens and HSUS on television."

Lisa Kauffman, the Idaho director for the Humane Society, voiced her opposition to the proposed board in The Oregonian, "A livestock board is basically the fox watching the hen house," Kauffman said. "The bottom line is, the hens are the ones that are suffering."

According to Idaho Reporter, state Rep. Tom Loertscher is opposed to the bill because a portion of the money collected from offenders is allocated to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) and local law enforcement.

“Loertscher said he agreed that fines for animal abuse should go up, but wanted to change what would be an incentive program to go after animal abusers. Loertscher said the livestock industry raised objects to parts of the changes to state law that might require animals to be tagged with radio frequency ID tags. Many ranchers prefer branding their animals. Loertscher also said some objected to language that would label not providing adequate medical care for animals as abuse. ‘That’s way too broad of a term to use in the livestock industry,’ he said.”

The bill still needs to be approved by the Idaho House to take effect. Other states with pending animal-care board legislation include Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri.

Do you think Idaho is thinking strategically for the best interests of its ag community, or is Idaho “jumping on an ag-legislation bandwagon?” Do you think Idaho’s House of Representatives will approve the bill?

*Photo obtained from NASS.

Removing roadblocks to ag markets

Historic controversy between the U.S. and Cuba has limited the potential for American agriculture to experience optimum economic trade opportunities.

Proposed legislation currently residing in the Senate would remove crucial U.S.-imposed restrictions on trade with Cuba to provide an increased market outlet for significant trade with the island country that is only 100 miles from the Florida keys.

The Travel Reform and Export Enhancement Act (H.R. 4645) would:
  • End impeding trade requirements, such as the requirement that payment processes from Cuba to U.S. farmers must use a third-country bank and abide by its policies
  • End the requirement that transactions be cash only
  • Require that exports meet the same payment requirements as exports to other countries (payment required when the title of the shipment changes hands, not in advance)
  • Permit U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba (allows for ag-sale facilitation)
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama announced his plans to double America’s exports throughout the next five years to strengthen the economy. H.R. 4645’s passage would help the country meet the administration’s goal.

“Cuba used to be one of our big markets,” said Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and the bill’s sponsor. “The bill “would help us get those markets back.”

According to a Bloomberg article that cites The U.S. International Trade Commission, the U.S. has the potential to supply two-thirds of Cuba’s agricultural imports if legislation is passed. This number increases its current 30-percent import volume to the country.

The U.S. exported $528.5 million in food and agricultural products to Cuba in 2009, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The U.S. has exported almost $52 million in food and agricultural products so far this year. The U.S. supplied 27 percent of the Republic of Cuba’s food and agricultural product imports in 2008.

The American Soybean Association, the U.S.A. Rice Federation, the National Corn Growers Association and other agricultural groups are referring to the legislation as “renewing normalized trade.”

However, not everyone promotes H.R. 4645. In a letter published at, Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said:

“So what do agriculture sales and tourism to Cuba have in common, anyway? Not much. But hard-left Castro apologists are offering a quid pro quo to well-meaning farm state legislators, hoping that they will ignore the brutality of the Cuban regime and vote to loosen sanctions in exchange for meager sales to a bankrupt economy. The argument they make is that the 50-year-old embargo is only hurting U.S. farmers.”

AgriMedia Publications offered its stance about the legislation in an editorial posted at the Web sites of its numerous publications, “Restrictions and stipulations have made trade with Cuba very difficult, practically pushing Cuba to look for products elsewhere. If we're not the supplier, there are many who would like to step in, like the European Union, Canada, Brazil or Argentina.”

The bill has significant bi-partisan support (more than 30 co-sponsors) and farm-organization support, which promises to help its transition to the Senate for further deliberation.

Activating direct banking, the elimination of the cash-in-advance rule and unrestricted travel will improve access to this foreign market; creating an opportunity that benefits ag-industry members and the national economy.

*Photo obtained from The Center for International Policy’s Cuba Program

Carbon – An Agricultural Commodity?

Much of America’s farm community is opposed to proposed cap-and-trade legislation that could have severe repercussions for the agriculture sector.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act (HR 2454), aimed to address global warming, was recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and is currently being considered by the Senate. It places greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions limits on and offers a cap-and-trade system for affected businesses.

“This is not a vision for American agriculture, it's a death sentence,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R – Neb.

The agriculture industry, responsible for 8 percent of the nation’s GHG emissions, is feeling pressure to be on-board with Congress’ attempts to limit industries’ carbon footprint.

Increased energy prices will result from the legislation’s potential passage as industries raise prices to maintain production costs, in turn, elevating farm-production costs at all levels.
In a Corn & Soybean Digest article, Johanns states:

“USDA testified that the costs of fuel, oil and electricity will increase by about 22 percent. And here's a staggering estimate: The bill drives 59 million acres of cropland and pasture out of production by 2050. With millions of acres coming out of production and energy prices going through the roof, it’s not surprising that USDA also predicts significant declines in farm production. USDA’s testimony shows that corn production will decrease by 22 percent, soybean production will drop by 29 percent, beef production will decline by 10 percent and pork production will sink by 23 percent. This decline in production will threaten our nation’s food supply and is estimated to drive up food prices by as much as 5 percent.”

A blog posted at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis calls farmers “victims” of the proposed legislation. Foundation analysts found that it would adversely affect farmers:
  • Farm income is expected to drop $8 billion in 2012, $25 billion in 2024, and more than $50 billion in 2035.
  • The average net income lost throughout the 2010-2035 timeline is $23 billion – a 57-percent decrease from the baseline.
  • Construction costs of farm buildings will increase 5.5 percent in 2025 and increase 10 percent by 2034 (from the baseline).
  • By 2035, gasoline and diesel costs are expected to be 58 percent more and electric rates 90 percent more.
But not everyone in agriculture is aggressively opposed to cap-and-trade legislation. For example, some groups have remained neutral about the issue, claiming it’s better to have a spot at the table when negotiating legislation rather than to be outright opposed.

USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack believes farmers should view the legislation as an opportunity rather than as economically damaging. Farmers would receive credits (payment) for using farming techniques that don’t emit carbon dioxide.

Production agriculture is not included in the current legislation as one of the industries that is required to cap their GHG emissions, but it can provide emission-reduction offsets to companies in industries that are required to cap their emissions.

According to ecomii, an environment resource, “The government issues credits, which allow companies to pollute a certain amount, as long as the aggregate pollution equals less than the set cap.” Regulated industries, such as fuel refineries and energy suppliers, either take it upon themselves to develop cleaner facilities to maintain compliance, or they can purchase emissions credits from other businesses that have credits available when they need to exceed their allotted emissions.

Farmers can limit their carbon footprint by practicing no-till and reduced-till techniques and can also convert cropland to grass.

In a Rapid City Journal article, Vilsack is reported as saying that conservation measures such as carbon credits contain the potential for billions of dollars in income for farm families. He said he is convinced that climate change is a fact and that changes in farming practices can help.

But with legislation stalled in Congress, “there's an almost-complete collapse of the market for carbon credits,” states Sarah McCammon of Iowa Public Radio. “That means profits are drying up for people who are paid to create those carbon credits — like farmers who manage their land in ways that capture carbon dioxide in the soil.”

In a segment titled, “Farmers Hurt By Collapse Of Carbon Credits Market” available at WBUR Radio online, the reporter talks about the economics of carbon offsets bought and sold via contracts, a scenario of paying someone to reduce emissions for you. For example, farmers that engage in no-till farming receive monetary payback for their “green” efforts. The reporter states that the global carbon market is valued at $125 million.

“It is important to set up an offset system to reward American farmers for doing the right thing, whether they’re raising crops or raising livestock,” Vilsack said. “Various studies show it’s (cap and trade) a net plus for agriculture.”

The failure to pass climate-change legislation could lead to regulation of emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If legislation dies in the Senate, the EPA has publicly declared its intentions to regulate carbon. Many believe that the EPA would include more industries for regulation and impose stricter policies.

Several ag-industry figureheads have voiced their discontent for EPA oversight.

“We believe the EPA’s greenhouse gas requirements will lead to costly and ineffective regulations on America’s farmers and ranchers,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman. “We vehemently oppose regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act because we believe it will require livestock producers and other agricultural operations to obtain costly and time-consuming permits as conditions to continue farming.”

Do you feel farmers are unfairly regulated or not regulated enough? In what other ways can farmers contribute to an improved environment? Are other industry sectors being ignored that should be mandated?

*Photo from The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute