Congress should increase the country's agricultural research budget threefold to reverse decades of financial neglect, a new paper asserts.

The paper, written by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation at the request of the London School of Economics, said the United States must double its funding if it wishes to return to the same pace of innovation as 50 years ago, and increase it from $5 billion per year to $15 billion to support innovation in plant genetics, biotechnology and agricultural practices.

"Everybody assumes that [agricultural] research as presently configured will just pull this rabbit out of the hat and produce more food than an entire previous history of humanity," said Val Giddings, the lead author of the paper and a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "There is no reason to be so technologically optimistic without some substantial changes to the way we're doing things."

Giddings, whose training is in genetics research, said no governing body in the world is adequately funding research. While there are "pockets of innovation," he said, those pockets are not linked.

Although climate change and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide may boost productivity of crops in high-latitude areas, climate change is generally expected to decrease crop yields globally, from corn and beans in Central America to wheat in northern India.

Some sectors are more fragile than others. Suitable winegrowing areas, for example, could decrease between 25 and 73 percent, according to a study released yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The drop in agriculture funding has happened in the larger context of a gradual erosion of support for scientific research, said Giddings. Private innovation has been helpful in creating valuable products that farmers will want to plant, like advanced seed varieties. But public funds are crucial for advances in basic research, he said.

Research lags further in Europe
"We need some dramatically new innovations," he said, "research that is not ipso facto directed specifically toward a solution of a particular problem, but one which is aimed at a more fundamental understanding of the way plants grow and adapt to changes and conditions that they face."

If governments fail to provide adequate funding, he said, researchers may have to resort to using crowdsourcing -- collecting money through an online fundraiser, with donations from individuals who support the research. This method has been used by biomedical researchers.

The paper is highly critical of regulations that limit research into genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, life forms that have had their DNA altered through engineering.

The consensus among scientists on GMO safety is "stronger than the scientific consensus on climate change," said Giddings. But the activism against transgenic crops in communities is growing. As a result, the number of research field trials in Europe, where policymakers are generally more skeptical than in the United States, has decreased.

The debate over the safety and environmental sustainability of GMOs has intensified in the last year in the United States, with California placing a measure to label food products with genetically altered ingredients on its November ballot. Although the initiative was defeated, the move has intensified labeling efforts from activists in the United States and Canada.

Is the debate on GMO crops over?
"Ill-considered policies driven by these sorts of misguided propaganda campaigns, those are certainly complicating and in some cases slowing the progress of biotech innovations," Giddings said.

British environmental writer Mark Lynas chastised GMO activists in a speech earlier this year, calling the GMO debate "over," and said activists were stalling important research to adapt crops to climate change (ClimateWire, Jan. 17).

Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists have raised concerns about the environmental impacts of releasing new genetically modified crops into the open to reproduce with existing plants. For example, herbicide-resistant crops engineered to withstand weed killers like glyphosate breed with native vegetation to create "super weeds" that can no longer be controlled with herbicide.

"I know personally dozens of academic scientists ... who have unanswered questions about the risk issues," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an interview after the Lynas speech. "To try to unilaterally suggest that [Lynas] has the answer, it's a misunderstanding of what the scientific process is really about."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500