President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked federal employees, most recently by proposing cuts to their retirement benefits and apparently undermining career Justice Department lawyers, several of whom have resigned. The Trump administration has similarly diminished the scientific capacity of the United States government by relocating the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington to Kansas City, Missouri.
Although framed as a cost-cutting measure, many commentators have speculated that this move was designed to thin the ranks of government scientists, who would be reluctant to uproot their lives and move their families many miles. Indeed, significant numbers of scientists retired or found other jobs instead of moving to the Kansas City area. At the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, for example, nearly eight of every 10 employees have left.
And it's not just the USDA. According to The Washington Post, nearly 700 scientists have left the Environmental Protection Agency in the past three years, and the EPA has hired only half that number to replace them. Overall, more than 1,600 federal scientists left government agencies in the first two years of the Trump administration.
Such moves are dangerous not just to the agricultural sector but also to the broader economy. America's emergence by the middle of the 20th century as the world's most successful economy relied on a key investment: the social commitment to build the capacity that enabled sustainable prosperity in U.S. agriculture. And this agricultural supremacy depended on government scientists.
The growth of American agriculture over the 20th century was built on a partnership between the government and private enterprise. To be sure, hard-working farmers contributed immensely to the nation's superior agricultural record. But individuals had neither the financial means nor the scientific knowledge to develop new technologies that could dramatically improve productivity. Therefore, the United States established a network of land-grant colleges and experiment stations to carry out basic research in agricultural science that could help American farmers prosper.
These institutions forged a dialogue between farmers and the government. To improve seeds, fertilizers and disease control, government scientists collected information from farmers concerning their experiences under widely varying climatic and geological conditions. Although this exchange was not without occasional friction, no one could deny that this government-supported complex increased crop yields.
With research disseminated far and wide among farmers through the Experiment Station Record, government researchers helped farmers develop innovative ways to combat pests, irrigate their crops and deliver their products profitably to market. Research from the laboratories of the USDA's Bureau of Animal Industry, for example, provided farmers with the knowledge that cattle ticks caused the spread of a fatal disease that became known as tick fever, which had plagued cattle farmers across the Great Plains and elsewhere in the late 19th century. USDA scientists discovered that cattle ticks transmitted the fever from one animal to another, a breakthrough that eventually led to the eradication of cattle ticks, rescuing the cattle industry from the brink of disaster and spurring the growth of the industry in the 20th century.
For U.S. agriculture, governments at the federal, state and county levels became deeply involved in developing new products and materials for agriculture and ensuring their effective use. Over the long run, moreover, the activities of the private sector and the public sector became inextricably linked in the development of U.S. agriculture. At the same time that government scientists made breakthroughs, engineers at private companies such as International Harvester and John Deere pioneered labor-saving machines that increased the amount of land that farmers could till, plant and harvest. In short, both the public and private sectors contributed in essential ways, making the triumph of American agriculture a collaborative process.
The history of U.S. agriculture shows how essential government support has been to the development of the American economy. For developing and using productive resources, moreover, the organizational principles of effective government support are analogous to the organizational principles of an effective business organization in the private sector. The USDA introduced a complex managerial hierarchy not unlike the scale of that employed at General Motors, for example.
But the case of U.S. agriculture has even more profound implications for understanding the sources of successful economic development in the United States. The contribution of federal, state and local governments in agriculture put into place an infrastructure (e.g., commodity price supports, supply regulations, import barriers and crop insurance) in the United States that boosted agricultural productivity and represents one of the most successful examples in modern economic history of the beneficial impact that the government can have on a single economic sector.
Today, those unacknowledged and critical public servants whose work on behalf of American agriculture in the USDA and other agencies made it possible for America to become the largest and most successful agricultural producer in the world are facing job cuts. We need to remember the contributions of their expertise, especially at a time when experts are disregarded and the ideal of public service itself is under sustained attack.
The disarming of American agriculture is already being felt. Some farmers have said that the USDA staff upheaval has made it harder to access information they need. This is all the more pressing as climate change threatens to bring droughts and further unpredictability to farms across the land.
Yet the legacy of America's investment in agricultural research stands in the public institutions of higher education originally established for that purpose: From Indiana's Purdue University to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, many universities, which bring pride to states across the country, grew out of the government's quest to help farmers. If the United States hopes to maintain its agricultural strength in this competitive century, it would be wise to replenish its ultimate investment in government science.
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Louis A. Ferleger is professor of History at Boston University and author of "Planting the Seeds of Research: How America's Ultimate Investment Transformed Agriculture."