Texas Tech University agriculture dean witness in House of Representatives hearing

Since the 1940s, American farmers, ranchers and foresters have increased agricultural outputs nearly three-fold with little to no change in inputs, according to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson.

“This is an impressive statistic which would not be possible without Federal and State investments in the cutting-edge research conducted at our land-grant and non-land-grant colleges of agriculture,” Thompson said. “These advancements further the fact that American agriculture is steeped in science, technology, and innovation.”

Thompson opened the recent hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Conservation, Research, and Biotechnology.

Thompson said the hearing is an opportunity to review programs authorized in Research Title of the farm bill to ensure universities are equipped to solve the challenges facing agriculture now and well into the future.

The lone representative from the High Plains region, Clint Krehbiel, dean of the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech University, said TTU is a comprehensive non-land grant university with more than 40,000 students across the university, medical school, veterinary school, law school, and graduate school. The Davis College at Tech has an enrollment of approximately 3,400 students across all disciplines of agriculture and generated approximately $48.8 million in annual research expenditures, including approximately $25 million in federal research awards, primarily from United States Department of Agriculture, over the 2021-2022 period.

“As you know, agriculture is a critical component of the U.S. economy,” he said. “According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, agriculture contributed $1.3 trillion, or 5.4%, of U.S. Gross Domestic Product in 2021. In addition, agriculture accounted for 10.5% of U.S. employment, and food alone accounted for 12.4% of U.S. household expenditures in 2021.”

Despite the overall economic impact of agriculture and the widespread availability of food, food security in the U.S. and across the globe continues to be a critical issue for national security.

“U.S. investments in agriculture have traditionally paid important dividends in terms of increasing U.S. productivity and competitiveness,” Krehbiel said. “In short—investments mean that we have been able to produce more with less, which is key to keeping our food supply safe, stable, and affordable.”

Limited budgets and scarce resources have caused agricultural investment to wane in recent years. According to Krehbiel, the USDA Economic Research Service reports expenditures on agricultural research and development was about one-third lower in 2019 compared to the peak in 2002.

“This waning investment has had an impact on U.S. agricultural production growth and U.S. competitiveness globally,” he said. “The U.S. had experienced sustained output growth from the late 1950s through the early 1980s, but annual output growth has slowed since that time.”

This has allowed China, India and Brazil to achieve total factor productivity levels rivaling or exceeding the U.S. This generates concern about the long-term competitiveness of U.S. agriculture.

Important problem-solving research has come from engagement with outside organizations, but that also means half of research programs are being guided by needs of specific groups, and not necessarily those who need it most. Essential basic research needs to be addressed so that agricultural innovation for the future can continue.

“The mix of funding sources experienced by Davis College is not unique compared to other non-land-grant institutions and is sustainable, but I believe that we must not let our institutions slip towards a mix of funding that is over-reliant on private sector funding if we are to continue to credibly deliver on our mission to serve the public good,” Krehbiel said.

Support from Congress has a real, direct impact on Tech’s programs and USDA-NIFA funding helps support projects like genomics research on crop stress tolerance that is leading to seed tech that improves drought tolerance in cotton, sorghum and soybeans. This is a critical asset for the future of agricultural production.

“Our vital research relationship with the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Ogallala Aquifer Program has led to important improvements in water conservation strategies and increased productivity and profitability in water-limited regions of the Great Plains region,” he said.

For Krehbiel, the data clearly points to the need for a concerted effort and investment in research and outreach necessary to enhance agricultural output, productivity and competitiveness in the U.S.

At Tech, critical research in wildlife management and improvement, food safety, rural and urban water management and other critical research issues are being slowed or limited by insufficient quality or quantity of laboratory research space.

“The reality is, we can no longer meet 21st century food and fiber research need with mid-20th century facilities,” he said.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Congress made modest investments in modernization through the Research Facilities Act competitive funding program during FY23, but in order to better address the long-term needs for modernization to remain competitive internationally, Krehbiel sees the need for an additional $5 billion mandatory funding program through the Research Facilities Act through Title VII of the farm bill.

“Investment impact has spillover effects in attracting great research talent,” he said.

However, the opposite is also true.

“Lack of facilities are major hurdles to recruiting talent,” he said. “Corporations with deep R&D pockets can recruit key talent into the private sector, effectively locking up that expertise for private benefit at the exclusion of public benefits from broad-based, publicly accessible research for all.”

Non-land grant agricultural programs across the U.S. serve as a critical engine for future growth as well as educating the next of leaders. It also proves important research and outreach programs are needed.

“Our goal is to complement Congress’ investment in the land-grant system and to service important elements of our populations and agricultural industries alongside our sister institutions to foster the long-term productivity and competitiveness of U.S. agriculture,” he said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].