How Did Agricultural Research Programs Fare Under the FY24 Spending Cuts

The Good and Bad News

How Did Agricultural Research Programs Fare Under the FY24 Spending Cuts

Washington, DC—After months of deliberations and several near-government shutdowns, Congress passed a package of six spending bills to partially fund the government in Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24). Annual funding for the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) programs and operations was included in the package signed by President Biden over the weekend.

While USDA’s overall budget for FY24 was essentially flat funded compared to FY23 levels, this can, in some ways, be considered a “win” in such a tight budget environment. First, the good news: USDA’s in-house research budget received a 2.5% increase to $1.8 billion, albeit short of the $1.9 billion requested by stakeholders and President Biden to enable the Agricultural Research Service to keep pace with inflation and expand research initiatives. Almost $60 million in earmarks will be directed to specific ARS research sites for building improvements and maintenance, up from last year.

The bad news: the package included cuts to several key extramural agricultural research programs that will undoubtedly limit the potential of new research and development spending to improve farmer productivity and international competitiveness, lower food prices over the long term, and reduce agriculture’s land and carbon footprint.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) research and education budget fell 1.7% overall, and surprisingly, NIFA’s flagship competitive grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), saw its budget slashed nearly $10 million to $445.2 million. This cut rolled back the program’s funding to FY22 levels despite a rising percentage of AFRI applications approved by expert review panels going unfunded due to lack of sufficient funding.

Cutting AFRI funding also came against the input of the many stakeholders making the case for a $500 million investment in the program this year. AFRI has long garnered bipartisan support and became one of the few bright spots for increased investment in recent years, making this year’s cut an unexpected set back. Other NIFA programs also experienced budget reductions. For example, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative received $2 million and half a million less in funding, respectively.

Furthermore, the budget for the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority—which, despite being established in 2018, has yet to be stood up due to a lack of significant investment in recent spending bills—was cut to $500,000 from the $1 million the program has received in recent years. Breakthrough and other agricultural stakeholders have long advocated for robust investments in an advanced research program at USDA to tackle agriculture’s most pressing challenges.

More than five months into the start of the FY24 fiscal year, the spending agreement provides important fiscal certainty to federal agencies but does little to reverse the recent downturn in public agricultural research spending. Since 2002, inflation-adjusted public funding for food and agricultural research has declined by about a third.

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Notes: Spending on public agriculture R&D includes federal, state, and nongovernment funds used for food, agriculture, and forestry research by the USDA, land-grant universities, and other cooperating institutions. Spending is in 2019 dollars adjusted for inflation using the National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research and Development Price Index. The spike in R&D spending in 1976 was the result of an adjustment in the federal fiscal year, in which 1979 included five quarters of spending. Source: Nelson and Fuglie, “Investment in U.S. Public Agricultural Research and Development.”

Continuing this trend in FY24 keeps U.S. farmers in a bind: to keep up with growing demand for agricultural products while heeding the calls from the federal government and the public to reduce the environmental impacts of farming without benefiting from the innovations from public research investment. Public investment in agricultural R&D reduces food prices, increases productivity, and, in the long run, mitigates climate impacts and land-use from agriculture. It is clear that the FY24 budget decisions will not enable federal research agencies to fully maximize these potential benefits.

When considered in the larger context of the six bill package and non-defense program spending limits set by last summer’s debt ceiling agreement, USDA science programs fared relatively well compared to other major federal research agencies. The National Science Foundation suffered an 8.3% cut and the Environment Protection Agency’s science and technology program fell by 5.5%.

However, cuts to agricultural research are not only a blow to food and agriculture scientists and institutions that carry out publicly-funded research, but also to the farmers, producers and consumers that benefit from new agricultural innovations. It becomes increasingly imperative that federal lawmakers seek additional avenues, like the next farm bill, to bolster public agricultural research funding moving forward.