Investing In Specialty Agriculture Research Is Money Well Spent
As noted in my last article, the cost of producing fresh vegetables has increased and it is hard to see where any improvements can be made to lower costs and increase competitiveness. We have better varieties that help us manage the risk from disease and pest pressures, but we have seen little increase in yields or unit values. As golden as the 1980s were to the produce industry, the current decade is more like tarnished steel, maybe even a little rusty.
Our numbers suggest this industry needs to seek change. We do expect that in the longer term demand will grow for our products as population and incomes rise around the world. But there will be greater competition trying to satisfy that demand. Policymakers need to appreciate the dilemma facing this industry. The only way we will be able to compete in this market and make a contribution to the growing need for food is with greater investment in research and development.
It is easy to document the need for greater investment in research, but how do we spend that money? Kevin Starr wrote an article titled “The Seven Commandments of Funding.” While his commandments deal more with philanthropy, they do hold truth for when we consider where to direct the funding to help the produce industry survive and thrive.
Let’s review, reflect, and direct those commandments for funding research.
I. Thou Shalt Fund For Impact Above All Else
It makes sense that programs have to be judged for impact when dollars are limited. Where are the greatest needs and what kind of return can be expected on that investment? Impact should be a critical requirement in choosing projects.
II. Thou Shalt Not Restrict Thy Funds
Research requires investment in people and capital items. Underinvesting necessarily results in underachieving.
III. Thou Shalt Feed Success With Continued Investment
Reward winners and build on the success driven by their research program.
IV. Thou Shalt Not Hassle The Doers
It is OK to hold expectations, but don’t get in the way of success.
V. Thou Shalt Not Worship The False God Of Overhead
This might be pointed at administrators driven to increase their funds to operate programs, or it may be directed at funding agencies who must recognize it costs money to have the infrastructure required for an outstanding research program.
VI. Thou Shalt Not Be A Doer-By-Proxy
Do not fund only those that will just give you the answer you want. Research holds risk and not all expected results are realized. Give the researcher room to occasionally fail.
VII. Thou Shalt Advocate For Thy Doers
When the doers excel, sing his or her praises to thy colleagues and urge others to support their program. A high-impact research program is a pearl of great value, and it should be rewarded. Ignore the niceties of competing programs, and get the doers the money they need to continue succeeding.
The U.S. public sector has pulled money out of agricultural research programs in recent years and researchers have been left to find funding from the private sector. That puts great responsibility on the research community to find alternative funding sources.
Bottom line: More funding is needed to keep American agriculture admired by the world and to ensure our children’s future. Use those funds effectively and let the doers excel. Our research engine at the University of Florida has plenty of horsepower. Make sure it gets the energy (funding) it needs to utilize that capacity.