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Funding for agricultural research accounted for 0.2 percent of the $489 billion farm bill approved by Congress in 2014, totaling roughly $978 million over the five-year life of the omnibus spending package.

Taxpayer-funded investment in improving crop yields, food safety and other areas was once responsible for half of all agricultural research in the world.

The United States has slowly retreated from its position as a world leader in ag research since the 1970s, while other countries have increased their government-sponsored research.

By 2008, the United States' share of global agricultural research had shrunk to 30 percent, according to the Department of Agriculture, allowing China to move into the top spot.

Five years later, China's spending nearly doubled that of the U.S., even while American researchers maintained a better track record of publishing their findings and securing patents.

A consortium of 16 public and private universities, co-led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green, is seeking to reverse the trend of shrinking research dollars in the 2018 version of the farm bill now slogging its way through Congress.

FedByScience aims to share the stories of how scientific discoveries have improved food production in the U.S., while also communicating how future findings could help farmers thrive in the future amid turbulent commodity markets, more extreme weather and an uncertain economy.

"A stronger investment in agricultural research can provide the science and innovation that farmers need to navigate these obstacles," Green said at the effort's launch last month.

Members of the consortium, which in addition to UNL includes Iowa State, Kansas State, Colorado State, Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin, among others, met with congressional leaders in April to advocate for more ag research.

Those talks are ongoing as Washington seeks to find a farm bill compromise that can pass the House, and eventually join with the version that passed the Senate.

Boosting federal ag research funding would directly benefit UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, according to Archie Clutter, who oversees the Agricultural Research Division.

As national spending has stagnated, and even declined over the last four decades, UNL's federal-sponsored ag research has grown from $31 million in 2017 to just more than $40 million last year, Clutter said.

"The growth has come from our faculty's ability to compete for federal dollars and other sources of external funding," Clutter said.

Widening the pool of federal research dollars would give faculty a better chance to compete for more grants to address issues important to Nebraska's largest economic sector as well as global problems surrounding food and water security.

Clutter said as the world population is on track to top 9 billion people by 2050, it will be important to develop systems capable of feeding 2 billion more people than currently exist.

Researchers at UNL and other universities are already seeking to understand how to make food production more efficient and using less water and better fertilizers in order to solve the global challenge, he said.

UNL's 300 faculty members with ag-related research appointments also study plant pathology, biosystems engineering, nutrition and child development — all of which have a part to play in the big picture.

"It's going to take a systems approach to address these kinds of big problems, and we can bring expertise together from a wide range of disciplines," Clutter said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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