Is the basic information necessary for successful pork production or even agricultural production in general becoming private? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. And this yes grew larger this week as the US House Appropriations Committee recommended a 20% cut in USDA dollars to support all levels of research efforts. With the many cuts occurring at the same time in state support of land grant research activities, the future of publicly accessible information on which to base production decisions is looking bleaker.
When you look at how the swine industry has changed in the past 35-40 years, you can see the impact of these changes in public support. When the US industry began moving pigs off of dirt lots in the 1970’s, everyone turned to the Land Grant system for the information necessary to build the ‘new’ style of production facilities. In the 1980’s, information put forward by the Extension Service helped the industry move away from pen mating such that by the early 90’s a good share of US production came from herds where matings were either supervised or AI was used.
Today, we’ve got a large number of production systems that have invested in research facilities. These systems want in-house data using their genetics with their health challenges to answer a host of production questions. While the people overseeing the research may have discussions with land grant scientists, the data and resulting wealth of information is used by the production system for their benefit. The argument for not sharing the results is that ‘I paid for the data – why should others benefit’.
What we’re now seeing is production systems becoming successful in part because they are making the correct management decisions based on research data. The challenge – how do producers who aren’t part of systems that are large enough to invest in research access similar knowledge so they can remain competitive?
In the past, the federal and state support of the Land Grant University system was the great equalizer. US agriculture is considered to one of the best production systems in the world in part because of this investment in information discovery and transfer.
Now, food expense is less than 10% of the US consumers disposable income expense. In Washington, the message is – we have the cheapest and most abundant food supply in the world – why do we need more production research? This message is being heard loud and clear, especially when you combine it with the obesity issue in the US which also suggests an excess of calories is readily available to our population.
Congress has responded to this message by cutting public support for agricultural research. Long term this does not bode well for a diversified ag industry that has the knowledge base to respond to future challenges. Those that invest in research have this base and will be the new success stories.