Where’s the Wheat?: Small Grains Research Threatened by Federal Budget Cuts (with Video)

As Minnesota experiences a state-wide government shutdown and other states struggle to balance their books, the federal government is in a battle to come up with a plan to get this nation out of debt. It is a complex political process, and understanding in intricacies of various budget plans can be daunting. But looking deeper, you can find specific initiatives to severely curtail efforts that work toward food security and support local foods, including small grains. As many rejoice in the Obama Administration’s efforts to support organic and local agriculture, these initiatives may not survive the current round of spending cuts.

The Wheat Movie traveled to North Carolina meeting those involved in the local wheat movement, and at that time we met up with Dr. David Marshall, a wheat breeder and research leader with the USDA’s Plant Science Research Unit of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Since 2002, Dr. Marshall has led the Uniform Bread Wheat Trials, a multi-state, long-term initiative to perform traditional breeding practices to develop new strains of organic wheat with increased pest and pathogen resistance and the ability to grow in various climates. The crux of his work is to develop hard (bread) wheat for North Carolina, as well as to collaborate with the global wheat breeding community to develop high-yielding and hardy grains for local economies around the world.

On a broader level, the USDA-ARS is charged with, “finding solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day, from field to table.”

In addition, the USDA-ARS Mission Statement defines it objectives:

– conduct research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority and provide information access and dissemination to: ensure high-quality, safe food, and other agricultural products

– assess the nutritional needs of Americans

– sustain a competitive agricultural economy

– enhance the natural resource base and the environment, and

– provide economic opportunities for rural citizens, communities, and society as a whole.

In North Carolina, the USDA –ARS is leading the development of the new varieties of hard (bread) wheat suitable for the wet climate of the Eastern United States. Dr. Marshall’s work has been an integral supporting piece of Carolina Ground, a new organization of farmers, millers, and bakers across the state developing a secure, closed-loop micro-economies for bread wheat. Many strains of wheat from his work, including NuEast and Appalachian White, have the potential to change the landscape of North Carolina’s faltering farm economy by allowing small farmers in mountainous terrain grow a sustainable specialty crop that may rejuvenate rural communities by providing surrounding communities with bread that truly is local.

Before we visited with Dr. Marshall in May, budgets cuts with the USDA-ARS were already a concern, but since then the threat has grown. In mid-June, Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced what was known as the Chaffetz Amendment to the House’s budget proposal. With a $1.8 billion cut to government spending, the amendment specifically addresses spending within the US Department of Agriculture, calling for an elimination of what supporters call duplicative programs within agricultural research and statistical gathering. Under the Chaffetz Amendment, the USDA-ARS alone faced $650 million in cuts.

A June press release issued by the Caucus of House Conservatives stated the following goals of the spending cuts:

Cut in Half the Combined Budgets of Four Duplicative Agencies – USDA has three different agencies that perform agricultural research and statistical gathering at the federal level and a fourth that helps fund these activities at the state and local levels.  Many of the functions of the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture could be consolidated or accomplished through private-sector efforts.

The Chaffetz Amendment did not pass, with a vote of 338 to 83. In essence, this points to one-fifth of the house voting for an amendment that would have put critical research into the hands of the private sector. Had the bill passed, we would have entered the difficult situation of improving food production and battling malnutrition, hunger, and rural poverty solely through efforts driven by driven by shareholder interests, not the public good. It be sure, Monsanto’s Research and Development Pipeline provides a window to some of their research projects, many of which that focus on genetic modification and patenting, pesticide and herbicide use, and opportunities for large-scale industrial agriculture. While the USDA conducts similar works itself, many corners of the department, including the ARS, are pushing for alternatives based on community-level solutions, supporting local food economies, and organic farming practices.

As the situation stands right now, the House of Representatives has passed a version of the Agriculture Appropriations Bill that recommends a 15% cut to the USDA across the board. The Senate has yet to pass its own version, but as lawmakers struggle for compromise, similar cuts may be on the table there as well.

Blanket cuts such as these offer little protection for programs supporting local food security and food sovereignty within corners of the USDA. With significant cuts to the USDA-ARS, years of work developing new organic crop varieties to stay ahead of changing pathogens, insect populations, and climate change will certainly threaten the strength of the US and global food systems. These are important considerations to keep in mind as lawmakers struggle to come together to balance the budget. In our current fiscal situation, austerity in an inevitability, but in implementing cuts we must think critically before cutting programs that have clear records of success in moving toward a more sustainable and secure food system.

To learn more about the USDA-ARS, and Dr. David Marshall’s efforts to develop high-yielding and high-value grains for small farms in the US and around the world, watch this video, a collection of interview clips from our visit to his wheat testing site at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC.

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2 Comments

Filed under Farming, Organic, Production, Video

2 responses to “Where’s the Wheat?: Small Grains Research Threatened by Federal Budget Cuts (with Video)

  1. Cindy W

    The film was very iinteresting & informative! I havea lot of respect for those people involved in the wheat process from field to final product for the consumer. Great job!

  2. Thanks for the comment! Most important, I think, is to encourage the government at all levels when it supports programs such as this that work toward local food production, genetic diversity and environmental sustainability.

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