Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Belly of the Beast

Or, My Somewhat Snarky, Extremely Long, and Not Entirely Educated Report-back on Roger Beachy’s (Director of the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture) Talk at UC Davis

Disclaimer: this was written with not just a smidgen of bias against Dr. Beachy, for no other reason than that he worked for a Research Center funded primarily by Monsanto for many years. Also, I know what I'm talking about a little, but I am pretty sure he would destroy me in a game of scrabble, not to mention a debate on the state of world agriculture issues, even though I still think I'm right.

Gathering at the Mondavi Center was my first physical and intuitive realization that I am in the heart of Big Ag research. I mean, I know this fact intellectually, but my entire experience at UC Davis to date has been in a tiny little bubble devoted to sustainable ag and food systems work, and this makes it easy to forget the massive rolling fields of GE research.
When the wind blows the right way we can smell the Animal Sciences department, but that's the only other reminder. Aside from the fact that the Mondavi winemaking magnates funded the multi-million performance hall in which this even took place, walking into the hall, amidst people wearing name tags proudly identifying them as a biotech researcher or plant pathologist was my "Oh, yeah, I'm in one of the biggest conventional ag research universities in the country" moment. I recognized 3 people in the entire room of about 300 from my sustainable ag bubble, despite my hasty outreach attempts to get other like-minded folks to attend. The people sitting next to me (biotech researchers) were talking to the people sitting behind me (biotech researchers, one of whom knows Governor Brown) about the announcement that Karen Ross would be the new Secretary of CDFA, and expressed some concerns that biotech research wouldn't get any money, sob sob.

The UCD Chancellor started off the talk by announcing that the university was just recently a recipient of $40 million from the USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the largest federal competitive grants ag research program in USDA. The money was going to fund GE projects to develop new strains of wheat and barley and a conifer genome mapping project.

Following the requisite congratulatory remarks, Beachy started with a brief recap of his background as the President of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO, not coincentally, also the home of Monsanto, and then launched into his power point, entitled “Can Support of Science for Agriculture Prosper Inside the Beltway?”

The main points of his talk were that funding agriculture research is really important for a host of economic reasons and human survival needs, that there is tremendous potential for amazing results to come from investing in agriculture research, that we do not fund agriculture nearly to the extent that we should (kinda taking on the red-headed stepchild persona that we don’t get anything while the other federal research budgets get everything), and that dire things will happen if we don’t. He showed a nifty little timeline of Significant Events in USDA History, starting with the creation of the department by Abraham Lincoln, including the creation of the land grants, cooperative extension, the green revolution, etc, up until the fabulous re-arranging of the deck chairs that “created” the National Food and Agriculture Research out of its predecessor, the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. If it were my timeline, I might have added the creation of the USDA National Organic Program, but that’s just me.

Beachy then went into some detail about the positive economic impacts agriculture research has on the ag and food sectors and how the US has an agriculture trade surplus. He also pointed out that the amount we spend as a nation on ag production is exceeded by Brazil, China, Malaysia, Chile and several other nations, and that these nations could potentially threaten our ag industry. The example he used was Brazil and soybeans and how the growing demand for animal products and Brazil’s higher expenditures on ag could mean, hypothetically, that Brazil might overtake the US in soybean production. Of course, some of us think that this potential and dastardly set of events would be most damaging to the Brazilian rainforest, but that was not where Beachy was headed.

Beachy also mentioned the rising population and the need to feed 9 billion hungry mouths in the year 2050 (at which point I’ll be in my 70s, which, I guiltily admit, kinda made me a little less worried), and that the growth in agriculture research was not where it needed to be to meet these population projections. To his credit, he mentioned that more needs to be done on post-harvest research to handle waste and food spoilage in addition to yield increase, but to his discredit, he did not mention food distribution once.

Beachy talked for some time about the changing demographics of the U.S., in particular the racial make-up, and I kind of wonder if every Obama appointee has a mandate to include this in some way into their talk in order to show they care about diversity.  (Although later on, during the Q&A he referred to the Pigford lawsuit as “the African American situation,” granted, in tones sympathetic to the black plaintiffs, but *still*. I know the name of the damn lawsuit and I am not a high-level administration official in the federal agency being sued.) Anyhow, I think this bit on changing demographics was meant to underscore the need for engaged research with stakeholder participation at all levels, his forward thinking nod towards less colonialist models of research and food aid, and mention the changing face of agriculture science.

Then he moved into his big words of advice for the audience, which went back to the title of his talk, “Can Support of Science for Agriculture Prosper Inside the Beltway?” He talked about the current situation in Congress and the economy as being a major barrier. But he also said that the fact that agriculture has no unified voice is a major reason why we don’t get funded, and that it is really critical for agriculture interests to work together to advocate for more funding for research. There were other details that I’m leaving out, but the take-away message basically hovered around this platitude. I have my doubts, but then again, I think he was talking about the livestock people and the produce people and the grains people, not the pesticide companies and the organic farmers working together.

Following his talk, there was a panel of four University faculty, each of whom asked him a question that addressed a larger research issue of which the faculty member was interested. It was during this Q&A that the one and only utterance of the word “organic” happened (by Elizabeth Mitcham, a cooperative extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.) Of course, Beachy did not address her question about how the USDA needs to increase funding for all segments of agriculture, including organic, but instead chose to focus on the plan for research to eliminate hunger around the world (I think), where he discussed the less colonialist (his words) approach the agency would take where the country’s in need would decide their priorities themselves.

Pamela Ronald, a plant pathologist and one of UC Davis’ premier plant geneticists, discussed the lack of public support for biotechnology. She used the term “tea-partyists of the left”’ which annoyed me but I also agree a little bit, and the fact that I agree a little bit with that term annoyed me even more. She made some good points about the lack of arable farmland and water, with, of course, ag biotech being poised to solve those problems were it not for the negative public image it has. Beachy, of course, agreed with her.

The other questions focused on the need for rural development, particularly in low-income and impoverished rural and farmworker communities (asked by Jonathon London, professor in the Human and Community Development Department and Chair of the Center for Regional Change) and the lack of support for animal sciences researchers in USDA competitive grants research programs (asked by Anita Oberbauer, professor and chair of animal science at UC Davis.) I didn’t really pay all that much attention to Beachy’s answers because I was wondering how much the Mondavi center actually cost to build, and was also wondering what it would be like to have that much money to give away, and I then thought about my career path in sustainable agriculture.. I did recall that Beachy told Oberbauer that there was more money than she was counting for animal sciences if you consider the amount that went to fund food safety, but I think she was talking about more integrated agriculture systems research funding, not the “How do we stop our food from killing us” research funding.

There was then time for two questions from the audience, and the Chancellor chose two people whom she knew, so I didn’t really stand a chance of getting called on. Which was fine, because I probably would have been too nervous to sound remotely intelligent and articulate, but that did not stop me from getting a skosh self-righteously indignant nonetheless (as if I wasn’t already). The questions were asked about the need for a coherent vision at USDA (Beachy said that a lack of funding was the reason for this and went back to his “unified voice” message) and a suggestion that NIFA connect with the National Institute of Health to address health related food and nutrition concerns (Beachy said this was happening.)

Afterwards there was a reception, where I chatted a bit about some sustainable ag happenings on campus with one of the 3 people I knew in the room, but Leon got involved in a conversation with Pamela Ronald and another woman whose name I didn’t know, and I eventually joined their conversation. Dr. Ronald (who was very charming, I might add) talked about how many critics of GE don’t really have an understanding of production agriculture, and they think that either we should be killing off a percentage of the human population, become hunter-gatherers, or become subsistence farmers in sub-Sahara Africa. While I agree that neither of these 3 solutions are viable, I think she painted a kind of one-dimensional view of people who may disagree with her. There are many folks from the sustainable agriculture world who understand the complexity of feeding the world and the critical state of scarce resources, and how difficult a challenge it is to meet all of these needs. But then again, I am totally guilty of using the same broad brush on people like her and Roger Beachy. I do believe that their concern and passion for solving the word is just as genuine as ours is - that was definitely apparent at this talk - but they go about it differently, in ways that I think need further exploration, and with a lot more funding than we do.

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