There will be a significant shift in federally funded agricultural research in the United States in the 1980s. As outlined last week by Agriculture secretary Bob Bergland, this will be away from labor-saving applied research which he says tends to benefit agribusiness at the expense of smaller farms and farm workers. Instead, the emphasis will be on basic scientific study that could (for example) lessen the use of cehemical fertilizers and pesticides while developing new technologies to help small farm operators and their families.
A month ago, Mr. Bergland caused a stir when he told a press conference in Fresno, Calif., "I will not put federal money into any project that results in the saving of farm labor." Traditionally, considerable federal and state funds have aided the development of such labor-saving devices as the automatic tomato picker. Caught off guard by the Agriculture Secretary's comment, such organizations as the American Farm Bureau Federation reacted sharply.
In a talk to employees of the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Science and Education Administration Jan. 31, Mr. Bergland did not retreat from his earlier controversial statements.
"I find it difficult, if not impossible, to justify the use of federal funds to finance research leading to the development of machines or other technologies that may but at the same time damage the soil, pollute the environment, displace willing workers, and reduce or eliminate competition," he said.
Today's "harsh realities," including limited fuel supplies, new environmental considerations, and the social costs of displacing small farms and farm workers, he added, necessitate a new direction or publicly supported farm research. This means that the federal government now will concentrate its $1.3 billion agricultural research budget on such things as organic nitrogen fixation and integrated pest management, both of which could help lessen the use of agri-chemicals heavily reliant on nonrenewable oil and gas.
Sure to generate more controversy is the assumption that the USDA's policy change means the cutting off of federal research subsidies for most farm mechanization. Critics of such funding argue that the elimination of thousands of farm jobs and the demise of the family farm has been accelerated by government policies.
"We are very pleased by the decision," said Al Meyerhoff, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. This group is suing the University of California on behalf of 19 farm workers who charge that the university's farm research program principally benefits corporations.
Farm organizations, on the other hand, warn that hampering farm mechanization research could result in the exporting of US agricultural productioon to other countries (tomatoes to Mexico, for example, where labor is cheaper) and actually cost jobs.
"The secretary should be keeping this is mind, too," said Donald Donnelly, associate director of the American Farm Bureau Federation's Washington office.