More than a year ago, in May of 2008, Congress passed the Food, Conservation and Energy act of 2008. It was weird going back to read up on the coverage of the bill and reading how President Bush objected to X or proposed Y. His presidency already seems so distant. One of the things this farm bill did was create the National Institute for Food and Agriculture by reshuffling some departments withing the USDA (United States department of Agriculture which manages everything from the National Forest Service to subsidized school lunches) and providing more money for the newly created institute to disburse in the form of competitive research grants. The USDA supports a lot of cool research internally through the Agricultural Research Service* but they’ve historically had much less money to fund grants to outside researchers than the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. (Anyone know how Department of Energy funding stacks up?)
It’s not yet clear how much money the NIFA will have to fund competitive grants (the horse trading in congress hasn’t finished yet), but we can hopefully expect the new institute to recieve at least $250 million a year for the purpose, a substantial increase from pre-NIFA funding of $120-$180 million. Although to put it in perspective, $250 million is still only one-hundred of the funding NIH awards through grants. In addition to the main grant money that can be spent on plant breeding or biotechnology and everything in between, there will be a second pot of money devoted to sustainable ag and specialty crops (fruits and vegetables) but, as with the general fund, the exact number seems to still be in flux. It’s easy to focus on the major grains, as I often do, and as far as keeping people alive, those crops do need to come first, when starvation has been fended off, it’d be nice for people to also be able to keep themselves healthy and that’s where fruit and vegetables come in.
As I was just talking about here, we definitely need to be investing more in agriculture and the NIFA is a step in the right direction. If it were up to me I’d have thrown a couple of billion at the problem. I think there are a lot of low hanging fruit in the public agricultural sector after decades of underfunding. Regardless the NIFA is a good thing.™ And I’m even more confident of that fact now that I found out President Obama has picked Roger Beachy to be the first head of the new agency.
Roger Beachy has had a broad ranging career working in plant pathology (during which he was involved in developing the technology that would be used to create the ring spot virus resistant papayas that prevented the collapse of papaya farming in Hawaii). His CV is 18 pages long in 10 pt font. He has the, unfortunately rare, combination of scientific talent, administrative skills, and while being able to interact with politicians and super rich donors well. And on top of that, he’s spent his entire life working in the public and non-profit sectors (places like Cornell, Wash U, the Scripps Institute, and most recently president of the Danforth Plant Science Center). Can you imagine the screaming if Obama had picked someone who’d ever worked in industry to head up the NIFA? The fact that after picking my former governor to run the whole USDA, President Obama picked a guy I’ve actually shaken hands with the run NIFA is just a bonus.**
*Including people like Ed Buckler who created the maize nested association mapping populations, which are just plain awesome (and deserve their own entry), Doreen Ware, a top notch computational biologist who’s been very involved in the maize genome project, all the people at that Gene ExpressionCenter we’re lucky enough to have quite close to Berkeley. And I can’t leave out the author of Geneticmaize
**If this paragraph goes on a little too long, it’s only because Roger Beachy represents the sort of person I want to be when I grow up…nevermind that being twenty-four probably already puts me solidly in the grown-up category myself.