Agricultural research has been woefully underfunded for decades. While racing to meet the food, fiber and feed challenges of the next generation, the public agricultural research sector has needed funding alternatives to complement limited public resources.
A recent modification to the Internal Revenue Code - one that was passed with bipartisan congressional support and signed into law by the president on Dec. 18, 2015 - holds the potential to provide significant support for agricultural research.
The Charitable Agricultural Research Act (S. 908) was included as part of the tax bill, Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015. Known as CARA, the federal measure created a new type of 501(c)(3) public charity called agricultural research organizations (AROs).
AROs may serve as a nonprofit organizational vehicle for individuals or families who would like to commit their wealth for the conduct of agricultural research for the public good. "AROs offer philanthropists another option to advance public agricultural research," said Bill Buckner, Noble Foundation president and CEO. "The creation of just one new ARO could spur innovation and significantly advance agricultural research, but a dozen or more could dramatically impact global agricultural productivity, enhance our sector's ability to retain talented researchers and contribute the resources needed to make long-term research progress."
AROs are not a new concept in the advancement of public life science research. In the mid-1950s, Congress similarly modified the tax code to support medical research by creating medical research organizations (MROs). AROs follow this proven model to create similar outcomes for nonprofit agricultural research. Through more than six decades, MROs have inspired many to donate private wealth to public human medical research. Today about 200 MROs have been established, each conducting human medical research in conjunction with government or nonprofit hospitals for the benefit of mankind.
The United States Department of Agriculture reports that total domestic agricultural production has slowed significantly since 1990. Food, feed and fiber production is challenged by an exploding global population, changing weather patterns and shifting seasons, increased water restrictions, and losses of arable land to erosion and urban sprawl.
Increases in productivity and new technologies are required to ensure production agriculture delivers improved environmental impacts, responds to new disease and pest threats, protects and enhances our soils, provides food security to prevent related economic unrest, and satisfies increasing global demand for animal and plant protein.
"To address these challenges, our food and agriculture sectors must have new techniques and technologies," said Tom Van Arsdall, executive director of the National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research. "Regrettably, limited public funding for agricultural research has impacted progress, innovations and ultimately productivity. In addition to important increases in public funding, nonprofit agricultural research needs new, innovative funding sources and opportunities - private philanthropy can serve as one such source."
National commentators recognize that agricultural research is no longer a priority in the United States. Agriculture-related research accounts for only 2 percent of federal research and development spending, and such funding has "increased" at an anemic rate of less than 2 percent annually for more than four decades. Insufficient research funding affects research outcomes and the delivery of innovations, which negatively impacts productivity.
"Private philanthropy has the opportunity to dramatically impact public agricultural research," Buckner said. "The Noble Foundation's founder, Lloyd Noble, was a pioneer of using donated, private wealth to target research to improve a geographic region impacted by man-made disaster and drought. Today, some 70 years later, his institution has a global impact. AROs will offer similar opportunities to tackle agriculture's challenges in conjunction with the nation's agricultural universities and colleges."
In recent years, philanthropic initiatives, such as the Giving Pledge campaign, have encouraged the world's wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate a majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The creation of AROs, which are required to conduct agricultural research, will provide a greater opportunity for public agricultural research to align with the interests and passions of future donors and add to the nation's agricultural research capacity.
The Noble Foundation led a coalition of more than 65 associations, nonprofit organizations and universities that supported the passage of CARA and the creation of AROs, which will work in conjunction with the nation's land grant universities and non-land grant agriculture colleges.
CARA was sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, Rep. Devin Nunes and Sen. John Thune and received the consistent and long-term support of several members of Congress, including Reps. Ron Kind, Tom Cole and Frank Lucas and Sens. Debbie Stabenow, Ron Wyden and Jim Inhofe.
"The Noble Foundation is grateful to the bipartisan congressional members, in both the House and Senate, that introduced and strongly supported CARA, as well as all the tremendous outpouring of support by the other organizations, universities and nonprofits," Buckner said. "This support demonstrates the understood value of AROs, their need and potential benefit to agriculture and all of society."