Beyond Pesticides, September 24, 2018) In a move that critics fear may be a pretext for gutting federal agricultural research, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has proposed overhauling two federal offices overseeing food and agriculture research and moving them out of the Washington, DC area. A plan announced in August to relocate one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) top research office — the Economic Research Service — into the Office of the Secretary, a political branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is raising alarm from scientists. Concerned researchers see the move as a way to cut funding to important projects on climate change and nutrition, among others, consistent with other Administration moves to reduce input of scientists into public policy.
The plan by the Trump administration to overhaul two federal offices overseeing food and agriculture research, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and move them out of Washington by the end of 2019 is being cited by leading agricultural scientists and economists as a ploy to stifle important federal research.
The Trump administration has targeted ERS for severe funding cuts and says streamlining USDA’s operations would save taxpayer money and help the agency recruit and retain top staff, but the move will only serve to isolate the agency from key colleagues and resources concentrated in the capital. This will weaken ERS research by making it more difficult for agency economists to consult with other federal research offices, lawmakers, and federal policy groups. More troubling is that relocating ERS to the Office of the Secretary could compromise and politicize federal research responsible for nonpartisan food and agricultural economic analysis; an issue the office’s current placement was designed to prevent.
The August announcement noted that new locations have yet to be determined, and that ERS and NIFA may be co-located when their new homes are found. ERS and NIFA account for just over half of the $2.5 billion Congress budgeted for agricultural research in 2018. ERS employs 300 people in the D.C. region, according to USDA. NIFA, which funds competitive research grants at U.S. universities, employs a D.C. staff of roughly 400.
ERS research covers a range of issues, studying trends and emerging issues in agriculture, food, the environment, and rural America from crop yields and food prices to farm conservation practices, rural employment, and nutrition assistance. Key reports serve those who make or influence public policy decisions around farm and food, and include Congress, other federal agencies, and state and local governments. For instance, recent ERS findings have concluded that trade liberalization benefits U.S. farmers, despite the Trump administration contrary stance.
NIFA was established by the 2008 Farm Bill with a mission of finding innovative solutions to issues related to agriculture, the environment, and communities. Its goals include global food security, mitigating impacts of climate change, increasing agricultural production, while protecting natural resources, and combating childhood obesity by ensuring the availability of affordable, nutritious, and safe food.
Scott Swinton, PhD, an agricultural economist at Michigan State and the former president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, said, “The administration is now doing by fiat what it could not persuade Congress to do. Its plan to relocate ERS employees away from Washington is likely to trigger widespread staff resignations.”