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Kansas agriculture research infrastructure has fallen behind. That will cost us all

·3 min read

All of us need to decide what we want for Kansas and for our nation. We have taken for granted our position as the world leader in food and agriculture productivity and let the funding fall far short of the need.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, when you factor in inflation, public investment in food and agriculture research and development has been on the decline for the past couple of decades. This decline contrasts with the massive investments being made by countries such as Brazil, China and India, as reported by the journal Advances in Science, Technology and Innovation in September 2020.

A compounding problem is clear when you walk through any of the nation’s agricultural schools, including K-State. You will see research facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s with failing utility systems, leaky roofs and outdated technology and equipment. According to a report just released by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, 69% of all agriculture research buildings are more than 25 years old and require urgent upgrades.

In the report, Douglas Steele, APLU vice president of food, agriculture and natural resources, is quoted as saying they had received word from every type of institution that deteriorating facilities are impeding their research and education excellence. According to Steele, “These challenges on campuses are more than a nuisance: They are a national economic threat.”

It begs the question: How can our nation’s food and agriculture scholars and scientists be expected to deliver 21st century results and prepare the next generation of great scientists in buildings that are so outdated? What scientific discoveries are we missing because our research facilities are not what they need to be?

I am deeply concerned that this lack of investment in our food and agriculture research and development infrastructure will leave our nation less secure. In addition to food availability, agriculture programs at land-grant universities play a major role in helping monitor and prevent disease outbreaks, and in understanding disease detection and transmission. Advances in plant and animal disease monitoring and detection require research in modern diagnostic facilities. Such advancements are vital to our national security.

In the APLU’s report, the estimated cost for renovations and repairs across the 97 institutions studied is $11.5 billion, and colleges and schools of agriculture will need an additional annual investment of approximately $550 million a year to maintain them.

That is a lot of money, but when you consider the role agriculture plays in our economy it is clearly a solid investment. In the United States, the agriculture, food and related industries contribute $1.1 trillion annually to our nation’s economy and support 22 million jobs. In Kansas, agriculture’s contribution represents 54% of the state’s economy and is responsible for 21% of our workforce.

In “The Code Breaker,” his fascinating account of the 2020 Nobel Prize-winning scientist Jennifer Doudna, Walter Isaacson detailed the powerful discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 system. Isaacson revealed how critical breakthroughs facilitated the rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the development of multiple vaccines in record time. Science breakthroughs of this magnitude will be required to meet the food demands of an ever-growing world population in the coming decades. Cutting-edge science to solve the most daunting food sustainability questions, including climate-smart agriculture to sustain the global food system, will require bold investment to modernize our nation’s research infrastructure.

Research and development made our country the world leader in agriculture, and it will be R&D that will help us ensure we have a safe and ample food supply, our natural resources are protected, our agriculture economy is strong, and that we each have a greater chance for longer, healthier lives.

It will take all of us who are invested in agriculture and who recognize its tremendous impact to support the critical level of funding that agriculture research requires.

Ernie Minton is dean of the Kansas State University College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension.

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