USDA-ARS could lose 11 percent of its budget

The USDA Agricultural Research Service would lose 11 percent of its annual budget under the Bush administration's budget proposal and those cuts would result in closing some important research centers across the Southwest, including the Agricultural Research Center in Lane, Okla., and cotton gin research laboratories in Lubbock, Texas, and Las Cruces, N. M.

“The budget also recommends a 9 percent to 10 percent reallocation of funds to higher national priorities,” said Ed Knipling, administrator of the USDA-ARS in Washington.

Knipling recently toured ARS facilities in Stillwater, Okla., and was keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Oklahoma Peanut Commission and Oklahoma Wheat Commission.

He said research center closings, if the proposed budget stands, would occur on October 1, 2006. Some funds saved by closing those facilities would be diverted to other research centers.

“Those are tough decisions,” Knipling said. “The cuts are part of a judgment process and not by formula. The decision on the Lane Research Center comes from within the agency and is based on relevance factors and similar work performed in other locations.”

He said some cuts will come from previous budget items that were approved but never in a budget proposal. He called these “congressional add-ons” and consisted of earmarked funds. “With lobbyist scandals, however, Congress will be much more conservative with earmarked funds.”

Knipling said as much as three-fourths of the proposed cuts would come from prior year add-ons.

He said research centers across the country will take some hits if the president's budget is approved. The center at Stillwater, for instance, could lose funding. Potential losses could affect peanut, sorghum and small grain work.

He said national priorities affecting USDA funding include reducing the deficit, funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and natural disaster assistance. Reallocations within USDA-ARS include increased emphasis on emerging diseases such as avian influenza, BSE, Asian soybean rust, citrus canker, wheat stripe rust and other potentially damaging pathogens.

“Animal health will be a higher priority when it is related to human health,” Knipling said. “Conservation items will be high priorities.”

Knipling said the proposal remains just that, a proposal. “The president has made similar proposals in the past and Congress has not been receptive,” he said. “This year could be different, however, because of the increasing deficit, war, etcetera. Congress may accept some cuts. But the budget proposal speaks for the president and not Congress.”

He said other scientific agencies attract more attention and funding than does agriculture. “Homeland security remains a key emphasis,” he said.

Knipling said renewable energy holds promise for increased funding. “The president's mention of switchgrass, for instance, underlines the need for more research. Some work is already in place in Nebraska and at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla.. Bio-energy represents a growth area within USDA-ARS, but at the expense of other programs.”

He anticipates long-term research into renewable fuel sources. “We will need grain crops for human and animal feed,” he said. “Our challenge is to find ways to convert crop residue, stalks, stems, etcetera, into energy.”

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