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Conrad, J.W. 1993. National new crops policy. p. 2-4. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

National New Crops Policy

John W. Conrad III


As a close observer of our political system at some of its highest levels, it is my hope to share some of those observations in order to gain a better understanding of the purpose and ramifications of federal agricultural science policy. In particular, I wish to focus on the policy for new crops, the expectations which the House Agriculture Committee and the Congress have for the scientific establishment, and the goals set forth in legislation.


To fully understand and appreciate the role of the government, and particularly the Congress, in agricultural science today, it is necessary to place it into an historical context. The relationship between government and agriculture is basic and has existed for a long time. A happy people, content and not prone to revolution or overthrow of government, is a people who are well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed. It is in the government's own best interest that these three conditions are met on a timely and continuous basis. The Constitution recognizes the role which science plays in helping to achieve these ends. Article I, Section 8 of this venerable document empowers the Congress "To promote the Progress of Science ..." As a fledgling nation in the midst of expansion and beginning a cruel and costly civil war, Justin Morrill and Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of agriculture in our national life and proceeded to establish the structure for its continual improvement and modification. It became the official policy of the United States, by way of the Land Grant Colleges Act of 1862 and 1890 (the First and Second Morrill Acts) and subsequent legislation, that each State establish a college of agriculture and the means for the transmittal to the public of agricultural discoveries and related information. The 1890s institutions are, of course, the historically black colleges, including Tuskegee University.

The resulting Land Grant educational and research system of the United States is second to none. It has helped to establish the United States as a preeminent agricultural nation. Our production agriculture is the envy of the world. Our people, on the whole, have been among the best fed, best clothed, and best housed. Our over-production has helped to feed, cloth, and house many peoples in lands around the world.

The Land Grant system is recognized around the world as the best. Many come from foreign lands to receive their education here. The entire agricultural leadership of some foreign countries has been educated and trained within the United States Land Grant college system. Land Grant institutions are also expected by many to play a significant role in the redevelopment of agriculture and the promotion of economic stability in the emerging democracies and the Soviet Union.


The Congress has exercised its Constitutional responsibility by establishing an agriculture science framework and policy. From time-to-time that policy is revisited and revised, most recently in the 1990 Farm Bill. Much attention has been given to production agriculture. However, over the years, interest in new crops and new uses for agricultural commodities in the Congress has varied from intense to subdued. Congressional interest is once again intensifying due to national and world economic conditions. Those of you working on the development of new crops and new uses know that policy has not always been consistent in this area. Interest has depended, in part, upon funds availability, the viewpoint of the then-current Secretary of Agriculture and/or Congress, and the amount and duration of the surplus production from traditional commodities.

At times with high commodity surplus levels, the interest in alternative crops that farmers can profitably raise has been keen. Individual farmers, commodity groups, legislators and political appointees ask what is going on with research and how soon can we have an acceptable alternative to assist with farm income and to reduce farm program cost. They seem to conveniently forget that solutions to these problems take time. It takes years of hard and consistent work to develop a new crop or new use. It takes more years to develop farmer and general public acceptance of a new crop. And, it can take several years to develop the necessary seed stock so that it can be grown in sufficient quantities. Interest wanes at the point that traditional commodity surpluses dip, due to weather or other production shortfalls, and turn into scarcity. Surpluses cease to be surpluses and become strategic reserves. Interest in new crops, new uses and new markets also disappears.

Over the years, the Congress has tried to deal with new crops and new uses through a variety of legislation. Richard Wheaton (1990) summarized much of this legislation in his talk before the First National Symposium on New Crops in 1988. That legislation includes the Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpiling Act of 1979, the National Materials and Minerals Policy Research & Development Act of 1980, the Critical Materials Act of 1984, the Native Latex Act of 1979, and the Critical Agricultural Materials Act of 1984.

Since that time and in a continued effort to address the need for new crops and new uses, the Agriculture Committees and the Congress have passed legislation reauthorizing programs and creating new entities to further necessary research in this area. I am referring to the reauthorization of the Critical Agricultural Materials Act and to Subtitle G of the Farm Bill, which creates the Alternative Agriculture Research and Commercialization Center.

There is also the provision in the Farm Bill pertaining to the production of energy from biomass. In this area, feedstock improvements are of interest and hold promise. The substitution of renewable resources for depletable resources continues to capture the imagination of the Congress, the public, and the farming community. It is an important area for further development, an area which could affect the quality of life in both rural and urban areas of the United States.

During the debate on the 1990 Farm Bill, Members expressed concern about the state of United States agricultural commodity exports. Economic data shows that global trade in bulk commodities is increasing at approximately 1% per year. On the other hand, trade in value added products increased at about 5% per year during the 1980s. Consumer oriented food products account for 53% of world agricultural trade.

Recognizing the need to compete in world markets, the advantage of having one organization within the USDA whose sole duty would be to develop new uses for traditional and new agricultural commodities, and responding to advice from the scientific community, the 1990 Farm Bill established the Alternative Agriculture Research and Commercialization Center (AARCC). AARCC is directed to "(research and) commercialize new nonfood, nonfeed uses for traditional and new agricultural commodities in order to create jobs, enhance the economic development of the rural economy, and diversify markets for raw agricultural and forestry products."

Diversification could lead to a sounder agricultural sector in the next century. However, the strength of diversification will depend upon the markets found and developed for these new crops and new uses. It will do no good to have new surpluses of new crops and no new uses. An idea may be a good idea, a discovery may be great, a new crop or new use may fulfill a need, but no idea, no discovery, or no need is fulfilled without money. We can be altruistic about new crops and new uses, but the harsh reality everyone in all walks of life faces is the need for money. It takes adequate, consistent funding to discover, develop, and market new crops and new uses.

Funded at a level of $4.5 million for fiscal year 1992, it is hoped that AARCC will be able to provide adequate and consistent funding for this area. That is one of the fundamental, founding principles for its establishment. There is a strong desire to remove the peaks and valleys from funding efforts and provide continuity and stability for our new crops and new uses research establishment. The work you are doing is important every day of every year, not just when someone needs it.

In response to a strong call from the scientific community, the 1990 Farm Bill established the National Competitive Research Initiative (Section 1615), focused on basic research. Authorized funding for the initiative begins at $150 million for fiscal year 1991, increasing to $500 million in fiscal year 1995.

The AARCC and the National Initiative represent two sides of the same agricultural research coin. The focus of the AARC is more along the lines of applied and adaptive research, and the commercialization of agricultural research. On the other side, the National Initiative addresses the area of basic agricultural research. One hopes that these two great efforts will compliment each other.

There was considerable debate on the merits of these two areas, about what and how much of either was actually needed. The resulting consensus endorsed both. However, I would observe that applied and adaptive research with an eye toward commercialization continues to build momentum and catch the interest of Members.

There are, I believe, several reasons for this. One, Members interested in rural development are looking for new ways to improve the rural economy and way of life. They see scientific innovation, that which has not only been discovered, but which has also been applied, adapted, and commercialized, as a way to achieve some rural development goals. Two, Members are concerned about commodity surpluses and their affect on rural income. Three, with the tight budget situation, Members are looking for tangible, useful results for research dollars spent.

With the flag of caution raised on fiscal matters, I would observe that money is the bane of Washington at this time. There is not enough money to fund all of the programs that deserve funding. When asked to support new agricultural research projects or programs, Members can be frequently heard asking whether or not the proposal can be funded through the National Initiative or AARCC.

The budget agreement reached last year, which placed limits on military, domestic, and foreign aid spending, has everyone scrambling for the few dollars available for funding. Severe restraints have been placed on spending by the Congress. And the agreement is for three years. This has led to a high degree of frustration in the Congress over spending priorities. Agriculture is affected by this agreement. Commodity programs, nutrition programs and research are all in the same boat. Too many requests for spending, too little money to honor those requests.

Some of you may have read recent news accounts of an effort by some Members to modify and change the existing budget agreement. They believe that the changes in the international political situation, that is the breakup of the Soviet Union and changes in Eastern Europe, should be reflected in the United States budget. This would translate into less spending on defense and more spending for domestic programs. At this time, there is no renegotiation in progress. Should the Administration even agree to discuss the matter, that process could be as long, as tedious and as explosive as the previous negotiations were. Any potential new agreement would not take affect until the fiscal year 1993 budget, at the earliest.


There is a long history of Congressional interest and involvement in agricultural scientific research. This involvement is manifested in a Congressionally mandated agricultural scientific research structure and programs, which are from time-to-time revisited and revised.

The most recent debate, during the 1990 Farm Bill, reauthorized existing programs and established two new funding mechanisms: the AARCC and the National Research Initiative. AARCC concentrates on applied and adaptive research and commercialization of discoveries, while the National Initiative will fund basic research. The lack of funding for needy spending programs is a very real problem affecting the Congress and the Administration. Funding agricultural research is directly affected by this problem.

The need for new crops and new uses research continues to exist. The intent of the Congress is for the USDA to explore all possibilities for substituting renewable resources for depletable resources in order to reduce excess production capacity in American agriculture and the high cost of government farm programs.


Wheaton, E.R. 1990. Industrial crops commercialization, p. 41-46. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.). Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
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