TWIN FALLS • Of the three major agricultural commodities grown in the U.S., wheat is unique.
While private companies have invested heavily into proprietary breeding programs that develop hybrids with traits ranging from insecticide resistance to drought tolerance, wheat development remains primarily a function of public research. Approximately 80 percent of the wheat grown in the U.S. is seeded to public varieties.
As pressure to reduce spending has intensified over the last several years, federal research dollars have been slashed. Over the last 24 months, the federal Agricultural Research Service budget has been cut 15.7 percent. Those cuts appear deeper when considering the 700 vacant ARS positions nationwide that cannot be filled due to budget constraints.
That has wheat growers like Robert Blair of Kendrick worried. Blair was part of a National Association of Wheat Growers delegation that visited Capitol Hill last week to plead for increased agricultural research funding.
“There are three legs of the stool in agricultural research, especially in wheat,” Blair said. “There are grower dollars that come from state commissions, state dollars and federal dollars. It takes all three to make it work.”
One reason agricultural research budgets tooksuch large hits recently is that taxpayers don’t see the impacts immediately. Developing a new variety can take 10-12 years. Losing a year or two can make a large difference for some projects already in the pipeline, particularly for diseases.
Stripe rust is a fungal disease easily controlled with fungicides in southern Idaho, but can cause large economic losses in wetter climates. But like all other pests, stripe rust is adaptable . Researchers have determined the stripe rust in the Pacific Northwest is only two strains away from mutating into a form that will overwhelm today’s resistant varieties and fungicides.
UG99 is a strain of rust that was first identified in Uganda in 1999. It has overwhelmed resistant varieties in Africa and the Middle East. Wheat growers and plant scientists expect UG 99 to make it to the U.S. relatively soon, but soft white wheat with resistance to UG 99 doesn’t exist.
While ARS and other public researchers are working to meet that challenge, many of those projects have only one person assigned to them. Should that researcher retire, ARS would be hard pressed to fill the position.
That worries Blair. As a 2011 Eisenhower Ag Fellow, he had the opportunity to travel around the world and meet farmers from major wheat growing regions. Argentina, Australia and Canada are all increasing agricultural research dollars at the same time that the U.S. is reducing spending.
“These countries recognize the importance of research and agriculture to meet the demands of feeding a growing world population on fewer acres while being environmentally responsible,” he said.
The delegation also talked about the importance of completing work under way to sequence the wheat genome and improve quality for specific end products.
Idaho is home to several ARS locations, including the ARS National Small Grains Germplasm Research Facility in Aberdeen. The facility maintains a collection representing the global diversity of wheat, barley, oat, rice, rye, triticale and other wild relatives. The Northwest Irrigation and Soils Research Laboratory in Kimberly focuses on water and soil quality issues while several ARS fish scientists are stationed at the Hagerman Fish Culture Experiment Station.
President Barack Obama released his $3.77 trillion fiscal 2014 budget while the delegation was in Washington, D.C. The president’s budget includes an increase in the ARS budget to $1.124 billion, or about the level at which the agency was funded two years ago.
Blair was encouraged by the news, but called it “just putting a Band-aid on an artery that has been opened up.” He is concerned about where the increase in research dollars came from. If the money came from cutting other agricultural programs, such as crop insurance, then we “are just shooting ourselves in the foot.”