Leath gives AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation Lecture

News | 06/29/2015

Steven LeathIowa State University President and Cultivation Corridor board member, Steven Leath, spoke at the 2015 AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation Lecture on Tuesday, June 16. For more on President Leath’s lecture, visit aaas.org. Below is a complete transcript of his remarks.


A University President’s Perspective on the Economic Importance of Pursuing a Unifying Message to Make Agriculture a National Priority

Good afternoon and thank you! I want to start by saying what an honor and a privilege it is to be invited to present the 2015 AAAS Riley Memorial Lecture. In particular, I’d like to thank Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS, and all of his staff. Also, Dick Ridgway, past president of the Riley Memorial Foundation, and current president Wendy Wintersteen, endowed dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station at Iowa State University. She has, and continues to be, one of the strongest leaders and advocates for agriculture and agricultural research across Iowa and the nation.

I also want recognize Ken Quinn and the World Food Prize Foundation for their collaboration in creating this wonderful opportunity to highlight research and innovation in agriculture. Iowa State is proud to have a strong relationship with the World Food Prize, located in Des Moines – just 30 miles from our campus in Ames. I want to thank USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics Catherine Woteki who is also a former dean of the College of Agriculture at Iowa State for her dedicated leadership to advancing agriculture.

And I want to thank all of you for being here – because we cannot solve the world’s and agriculture’s grand challenges without all of you.

About seven months ago, a comprehensive report was released entitled – Pursuing a Unifying Message. The Riley Memorial Foundation led the effort and both Dr. Ridgway and Dr. Wintersteen were among 40 contributors and reviewers of the report. The purpose of the report is to underscore the critical need to elevate food, agricultural, and natural resources research as a national priority. And it stresses that the way to accomplish this is by coming together with one voice to speak in a clear, effective, and compelling way about why ag research is so essential to the public good.

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman wrote the foreword for that report; and last year at this lecture, in advance of the report’s release, Secretary Glickman laid out some of the key reasons for why agriculture should be a national priority. He emphasized the monumental mission we’re on to meet the needs of a global population as it rapidly expands to 9.6 billion people by the year 2050.

He referred to the obstacles we face as the asteroids of the future – the need to produce as much food in the next 35 to 40 years as the world has produced in the previous several thousand, and how this is compounded by the fact that we have diminishing land and water supplies and an increasingly volatile climate.

Today, I echo that message – and I would add that this is not only the greatest mission in the history of agriculture, it is indeed the greatest challenge in all human history!  Given that, as the days, months, and years pass, the urgency with which we must address this challenge only intensifies.

The vast majority of the population growth by 2050 is projected to occur in areas already experiencing food insecurity; Sub-Saharan Africa’s population could more than double. But the challenges of 2050 aren’t confined to developing countries – the impacts will be felt worldwide and right here in the U.S. The projections are staggering – the amount of farmland available to feed each person will shrink from nearly a full acre 25 years ago, to less than a third of an acre per person in the next decades, and nearly half of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity by 2050.

Yes, this is quite clearly a serious humanitarian issue, but I also want to stress why this is an extremely important economic issue and how universities must contribute to both — and be part of the compelling message to increase support for ag research and innovation.

My perspective is certainly influenced by my position as president of a leading land-grant university that is also a member of the Association of American Universities. Iowa State is home to a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences ranked in the top 10 in the world… it’s the university that pioneered the nation’s first cooperative extension program… it’s a university that focuses on partnerships as well as innovation to advance agriculture… and it’s a university that understands the critical need for a unifying message.

But I’m not only president of Iowa State, I’m also a trained plant scientist. I earned my undergraduate and master’s degrees in plant science. I actually conducted my master’s thesis on soybean diseases, and I earned my Ph.D. in plant pathology studying genetics of disease resistance in corn. All of my degrees are from land-grant universities – Penn State, Delaware, and Illinois.

And following my education, I traveled to Mexico as a USDA-ARS scientist and walked the same fields as one of the greatest agriculturalists of all time, Iowa-native Dr. Norman Borlaug. Not only did I work in the same fields in Texcoco and Obregon, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Dr. Borlaug on a few occasions. I’ll never forget our conversation when he said he couldn’t have had the success with his wheat varieties without face-to-face conversations with farmers. That reconfirmed for me the very real impact of extension programs, of not just conducting groundbreaking research but ensuring that the results of that research are made available to those who have use for it.

As a plant pathologist with the USDA-ARS unit based at NC State and a young professor, I focused on disease control and genetics of disease resistance cereal crops. Later, I was promoted to research leader and then acting national grain crops program leader for the ARS unit in D.C.  I developed a deep appreciation for ARS research because it serves a wide range of stakeholders, it’s unique and it complements university and private sector research, and its primary objective is to contribute to the public good.

The base funding that accompanied these positions allowed ARS scientists to react quickly to emerging needs and conduct research to develop high risk/high payoff solutions.

More recently, before joining Iowa State three and a half years ago, I served as Vice President for Research for the University of North Carolina System and I had active roles at the NC State Centennial Campus and the North Carolina Research Triangle Park. This is where I realized the important benefits of putting a major focus on public-private partnerships. The Riley Memorial Foundation has invited NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson to share some of his thoughts on this region’s impact with a group of us tomorrow morning, and I look forward to that discussion.

So, I tell you all of this – not to boast my resume, but to give you a better understanding of my experience and how that has shaped my broad perspective on why we need to partner together and not only pursue, but actually develop, a unifying message to elevate food, agricultural, and natural resources research as a national priority.

I often tell audiences that “I’m a land-grant guy.” I am, always have been, and I’m very proud of that — and I will speak to that. But as we think of a unifying message to rally around, I want to acknowledge that the engagement of many public universities, both land-grant and non-land-grant, and private universities will be necessary in moving forward.

The universities will need to be in close partnership with ARS as well as other federal and state agencies and the private sector if we are going to succeed. Land-grant universities have their roots in agricultural research, going back over 150 years. Other universities bring critical expertise and experience to address challenges in agricultural sciences. We must value all contributions from diverse institutions and partners and think about how we move forward together on this critical national priority.

As a “land-grant guy,” I certainly believe the legacy of success of the land-grant system strengthens our case. Land-grants were founded on the principles that higher education – focused on core, practical subjects like agriculture – should be accessible to all. They were also created to conduct research on real-world problems and share that research to benefit the public good and improve quality of life.

You can’t get more “real-world” than a burgeoning global population that faces the threat of an insufficient food supply caused by a lack of land, water, and unpredictable climate change. The innovations that originated from land-grants like Iowa State have fundamentally transformed the ag industry.

Every university involved in food, agricultural or natural resources research — whether public or private — can point with pride to its accomplishments that have strengthened our nation. For Iowa State, one of the most groundbreaking agricultural advances was the development of hybrid corn, and specifically B73. It was recently named a Top 40 university innovation because the inbred line was instrumental in the increase of corn yields from about 20 bushels per acre in the 1930’s to more than 170 bushels per acre last year. This innovation was the culmination of decades of collaboration between the university, state, federal, and private partners. The stiff stalk synthetics are an Iowa original, but they’re now global – used in corn breeding programs worldwide, including the U.S., China, Argentina, and Italy.

It is innovations such as this that helped the U.S. enhance its status as an ag powerhouse. But in the years since, we’ve become complacent, while countries like China and Brazil have become hungry (no pun intended) for innovation. Six years ago, China overtook the U.S. as the global leader in public spending on agricultural research by tripling its investment. India and Brazil have also sharply increased their spending, while U.S. investments in ag research have declined 16 percent in the past decade. There is great concern that the U.S. is idling on an innovation plateau, while China and other countries are accelerating their efforts.

For U.S. agriculture to avoid losing its competitive edge and for our agricultural system to continue to operate successfully into the future, we need reliable and growing levels of federal funding for research. It is so important to look at all federal sources of investment, whether that’s within multiple agencies or across agencies, and whether it’s dollars invested in competitive research programs… or dollars invested in the infrastructure that strengthens our capacity to respond quickly to emerging issues. The United States has the world’s premier research enterprise in food and agricultural sciences. But changes need to happen to maintain our leadership.

Investing in the future of agricultural science requires an expanded portfolio of basic and applied research and extension and education – and continued investment in both competitive funding and capacity funding.

The lagging federal investment in food and agricultural research presents a tremendous dilemma for universities. As I said earlier, we’re proud that Iowa State is considered one of the very best universities in the world for agricultural programs. There are excellent agricultural programs at universities across the country. And we’re all very competitive. We all want to hire more of the best and brightest minds to face these enormous challenges in food, agriculture and the environment. But how do we support them in the future? Where will the resources come from to ensure they are successful and, in turn, these essential societal needs are met? This is a dangerous path we’re on. If we continue down this road, it is inevitable that our food, agriculture, and natural resource priorities will suffer.

Additionally, as a land-grant president, I recognize the requisite relationship and balance between competitive funding and capacity funding. It is difficult to imagine the nation dealing with a significant, immediate food or agricultural challenge without capacity funding. And it is impossible to imagine through a competitive grants program. Capacity funding is vital to a university’s operation and it also has made ARS a great organization. It supports faculty, staff, and scientists who are in position to quickly address challenges and crises when they arise.

Take the recent avian influenza outbreak for example. As the nation’s leading egg producer, Iowa is bracing for a potential billion dollar economic hit. Nearly 1 in 5 eggs consumed in the U.S. comes from Iowa, and so far, our producers have lost more than 30 million egg-laying chickens or about a third of their flock. And while egg prices are increasing for you at the grocery store, there’s also increasing concern among egg and poultry producers that they won’t be able to weather the outbreak, meaning many Iowa jobs may be at risk.

Fortunately Iowa State University has the base support to respond to this type of agricultural emergency. Our university is home to the Egg Industry Center – and the director, Dr. Hongwei Xin, is supported by capacity funds.

He and other university experts have been instrumental in providing valuable knowledge and resources to assist and educate poultry and egg producers as well as the general public about the outbreak – underscoring the critical need for our expertise and our cooperative extension services, which ensure our science-based solutions are shared with those who need them. This is but one agricultural economic crisis, without capacity funding many other billion dollar incidents will occur.

But our response doesn’t end there. Iowa State also has a team that had been collaborating with a company located at the Iowa State Research Park, Harrisvaccines, along with the USDA on avian influenza well before this outbreak even began. And because that partnership was already in place, they were able to react quickly to develop a prototype vaccine for testing against this new strain of the disease. This is a wonderful example of how our mission of education, research, and outreach is making a very real impact on society.

In addition to being a land-grant guy, I’m also an APLU and an AAU guy, and Iowa State is proud to be a member of these organizations of leading research-intensive universities. The AAU universities do incredibly important work in agricultural sciences, and they compete extremely well each year in the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture competitive grants.

Over the past four years, 36 percent of NIFA’s competitive awards went to AAU member universities — both land-grants and non-land-grants. At Iowa State, we’ve used recent NIFA support to greatly advance understanding of climate change and develop future Midwestern cropping systems. Other AAU members are using NIFA support on major efforts to address obesity prevention in the Southeast… to build up advanced hardwood biofuels industry in the Pacific Northwest… and to help ensure food security and access to healthy foods in Michigan. The point is: we can’t do this with just the land-grants, we must be more inclusive.

You’re likely familiar with the numbers – but it bears repeating. For every federal dollar spent on agricultural research in the U.S., nearly $13 is spent on medical research. The USDA’s research budget is just shy of $2.4 billion dollars. NIH’s budget? More than $30 billion! And yes, finding cures for diseases is unquestionably important – they deserve every penny. But I ask you – shouldn’t we also be growing our investments in research that may prevent those diseases in the first place… through proper nutrition and access to high-quality food and safe water?

We need to do a better job of communicating the message to our policymakers that even if we cured cancer today – without food, the longest any of us could survive is about three weeks. Without water – about 3 days. These aren’t just statistics, they’re very real fears, particularly in the developing world.

We may think that the public, and in particular, policymakers should intuitively understand just how essential this research is since everyone needs water and food to survive. Certainly the medical and health entities are doing a much better job of connecting the results of their research to your quality of life. And it shows in the federal investments.

Dr. Borlaug may have put it best in his 1970 Nobel Lecture. He said – “Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless.”

Another Nobel Laureate, John Boyd Orr put it even more simply – “You can’t build peace on empty stomachs.” And I would expand on that to say you can’t end cancer, eradicate AIDS, fight Alzheimer’s, or cure the common cold on empty stomachs either. Further, it would not matter to those individuals if they are without food.

But what makes developing this unifying message so challenging is that very few, if any of us, have ever personally experienced a severe food-emergency. However, it’s almost certain that we know someone who has battled a chronic illness such as cancer, ALS, or heart disease… maybe it’s even you. That personal connection makes it easy to understand, accept, and support medical research, but making the personal connection between agricultural research and innovation and the ability to feed your family dinner tonight is much harder to convey.

Nonetheless, I can assure you if we continue to take our food and water supply for granted, not only will a food-emergency be nearly inevitable, but the economic consequences will be grave.

Just take a look at California, an area where these issues are already emerging. That state is experiencing one of the worst droughts on record, forcing the Governor to mandate a 25 percent cut in water consumption for urban areas. But despite this grim situation, most people can still flip on their faucet for fresh, clean drinking water at their disposal. This is case in point why we must do a better job of personalizing these sorts of problems in order to secure support for long-term solutions. With billions in losses now predicted, the economic impact of the drought is severe.

And it’s important that these solutions are long-term, not a one-time fix. We need to develop innovations that can advance and sustain agriculture long into the future. One of those emerging areas is Big Data analytics. Big Data combined with GPS and high-tech sensors is enabling California farmers to map out their fields to better understand soil conditions and better manage their water supply. Right now, many farmers are subsisting by tapping into the groundwater supply. But that supply is quickly diminishing. This innovation will not only enable them to endure the drought, but also make permanent changes in how they manage their water supply for the future, which may prevent a future emergency.

Big Data is one of several rapidly emerging areas where Iowa State University is having a major impact on meeting the challenges of 2050. I mentioned those “B lines” of corn earlier. Today, our “Big Data” scientists are partnering with other universities and the private sector to develop a maize phenotype database — a resource that will harness the enormous amounts of data from the sequenced corn genome. In essence, it’s the beginning of deciphering the corn genome, allowing researchers to leverage the knowledge to make potentially dramatic genetic improvements in corn.

We’re also leading the way in advances in agricultural biosciences, biorenewables, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing. And through an initiative called the Cultivation Corridor that I co-chair – we are bringing together experts in these fields – from both the public and private sectors to make Central Iowa the agbiosciences capital of the world.

You might consider this our answer to California’s Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle. And now I believe this can serve as a local example, a microcosm if you will, of how we can come together nationally to reclaim the U.S.’s global leadership in agriculture.

The Cultivation Corridor will soon be based at the Iowa State University Research Park, which is currently home to more than 60 companies and 1500 employees. Over the next decade, we plan to triple the size of the park and the number of employees. The purpose of the park is to provide an incubator for new companies and assist established companies by connecting them with our workforce, researchers, innovations, and capital. The result – we’re able to accelerate commercialization of our research, promote entrepreneurship, and create jobs.

Several studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research creates $20 in economic activity, which means we’re not only positioning ourselves to help solve potentially paralyzing problems such as food waste, climate change, and pest management, we’re also positioning ourselves to advance Iowa and the nation’s economy.

Since its official inception just over a year ago, the Cultivation Corridor has totaled more than $1.8 billion in investments and economic activity. These are the types of investments needed throughout our nation if we are going to be successful meeting the obligations for 2050.

Key to the success of the Cultivation Corridor is a multidisciplinary approach and a strong emphasis on public-private partnerships. And we’ve experienced great success so far with companies such as NewLink Genetics, a firm that has made global headlines for its work on cancer and Ebola vaccines; Boehringer Ingleheim – one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies – is building its new global animal health R&D facility at the ISU Research Park; and Harrisvaccines – which, as I mentioned earlier, is working with Iowa State on avian influenza.

In addition, the Cultivation Corridor is already home to some of the top agricultural companies in the world – John Deere, Pioneer, Monsanto, Kemin, ADM, among others – and through this initiative, we are becoming better connected and better organized to address our greatest agbio challenges. These types of partnerships exist elsewhere like the Research Triangle Park; but we need to not only work together, we need to advocate together.

It’s that type of connection and organization that is vital to our national pursuit for a unifying message – because individually we are good, we’re conducting strong research, we’re making important advances; but, and forgive me for sounding trite, we must remember the tremendous strength in numbers.

Earlier this spring, a group of university leaders, along with representatives of the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, and the Non-land-grant Agriculture and Renewable Resource Universities gathered for a focus group on how to pursue a unifying message. A report that summarizes their discussion will be released tomorrow by the Riley Memorial Foundation. University of Illinois President Emeritus Bob Easter was part of that group, and I was not surprised to learn that as a university president with an Ag background, he feels the same way I do.

We both feel strongly about the need for broad engagement with both public and private entities, the significance of sustainability, and the importance of finding common ground to craft a message that will resonate with both policymakers and the public. I believe this is the strategy we need to secure an increase in funding across the board.

Each institution, each organization, each company with a stake in food, agriculture, and natural resources has a powerful perspective. But right now, agriculture and food research interests are viewed as one of the least effective groups in Washington. Why? Because there are too many messages out there focused on narrow interests.

We need to step outside of our silos and realize that by joining forces, it not only makes our research more powerful and our efforts more sustainable, but it will make our unified request to increase investments more persuasive and compelling.

So just how big of an increase are we talking? Three years ago, the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended boosting federal funding for agricultural research by $700 million.

Just last month, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recommended the U.S. double its investment in agricultural and food research over the next 10 years. While to some this may sound like an extreme request or a lofty goal, I would argue that recent trends in federal funding tell a very different story.

Between 1990 and 2012, NIH R&D funding increased 132 percent from just over $13 billion to nearly $31 billion. NSF funding also more than doubled from $2.8 to $5.9 billion. By comparison, the USDA’s increase over that time period appears miniscule at just 21 percent, from $2 billion to $2.4 billion.  While I’m not advocating that we take any money away from NIH or NSF, it’s astounding to see that the USDA’s R&D budget amounts to less than 10 percent of NIH’s.

My point is – the request to double federal USDA investments over the next decade isn’t extreme; it amounts to a drop in the federal bucket when compared to NIH investments.

Last year’s Farm Bill did help move us a little further in the right direction through the creation of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR). Congress provided $200 million – which must be matched by non-federal funds – with the goal of leveraging both public and private resources to advance our ag economy.  

It’s a start; we still have a long ways to go, but we can get there if we commit to a common message. And that message is this: we need an expanded set of resources, not a reallocation of the current resources.

We need a “bigger funding pie” that can adequately feed us, protect our environment, strengthen our economy, keep us healthy, and keep us safe for generations to come. We need to emphasize that without additional resources, the consequences of lagging agricultural innovation and production will be felt – not only in the villages of Uganda and Somalia – but right here at home.

The humanitarian and economic impacts of food and water scarcity won’t be a “third-world problem,” they will be a worldwide problem – and even a main street U.S.A. problem. We need to make it clear that this must be a national priority.

We must not be afraid to think bigger and act bolder. Innovation, boldness, and partnerships empowered the land-grant revolution, which in turn revolutionized the agriculture industry. Now, it’s our turn —public universities, private universities, the USDA-ARS and their many partners — to come together to launch a renewed and heightened effort to ensure a safe, healthy, and sustainable future.

Agriculture, food, and natural resources need to be at the forefront of science. As the Pursuing a Unifying Message report articulates so well – “connect the dots of every major societal challenge ahead and the picture that emerges is the critical importance of agricultural research.”  

Thank you.