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Agriculture Research Board Faces Full Slate of Issues

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Gates’ foundation is heavily involved with improving the productivity of small farmers around the world and will be working closely with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.

Agriculture officials will soon name a board of directors for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research that Congress created in this year’s farm bill and launch a program they hope will draw more money into the kind of basic scientific study that made the United States an agriculture powerhouse.

The bill authorized $200 million in mandatory spending to attract matching amounts from the private sector to finance research. It is modeled after foundations established to help the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Congress laid out seven areas of potential research, including plant and animal health, food safety, nutrition, and health and renewable energy.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates sees potential in the nonprofit foundation’s work. In a March visit to Capitol Hill, Gates, co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, praised the concept and said he looked forward to working with its grantees. In particular, he said he hopes the research includes the development of seed varieties that would be useful to subsistence farmers in Africa.

The first test for the foundation will be the composition of its board. Some interest groups say those chosen should provide clues to where the foundation will put its money and time. Eight directors will come from nominees recommended by the National Academy of Sciences and seven will be chosen from more than 200 industry nominees.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with the department’s three top research officials and a representative from the National Science Foundation will select the board members and somehow balance the views of different sectors in U.S. agriculture. The officials are expected to make the board picks in the next month or two.

Juli Obudzinski, senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the department has made it clear that it wants a foundation board of directors that represents “the diversity of agriculture. They didn’t want it to be just big agriculture or biotech.”

Her coalition, which focuses on conservation policy and issues that affect small and beginning farmers, thinks the board should go beyond traditional research priorities such as improving crop yields.

“We want research defined in very broad terms,” Obudzinski said, “not just emerging pests or even climate change, but research on the economy of agriculture and everything from nutrition to what is happening with the shrinking [number] of family farms.”

On the other hand, David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said his industry wants the focus of grants to be science and results.

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