MARTINSVILLE – Recent developments out of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) contained good news on several issues. Secretary Perdue announced more details of how the USDA plans to assist farmers in response to trade damage from unjustified retaliation by foreign nations. 

In his comments, Secretary Perdue summarized the reasons why the President should be given some negotiating space. “President Trump has been standing up to China and other nations, sending the clear message that the United States will no longer tolerate their unfair trade practices, which include non-tariff trade barriers and the theft of intellectual property.” Despite the naysayers in the Washington, D.C. area, the outcomes might benefit all sectors of the US economy, both consumers and producers. Our trade principles should be balanced, free and fair.

For years, from Argentina’s default to World Trade Organization decisions, I had questions about United States and our bland acceptance of grossly unfair trade practices from other countries. China has been outrageously open in stealing our intellectual property, but certainly not alone in those activities. Anyone who has paid attention to university research knows of “thumb drive” incidents in cutting edge laboratories and, for agriculture at least, stolen samples from the research fields. 

Surely, anyone who purchases consumer goods is aware of foreign counterfeit goods of popular brands and the knockoffs of other products that are imported in the U.S. If someone doubts the preceding sentence, they can just go stand on about any street corner in Washington, D.C., and buy their Gucci or Hermès handbag. For men there are ties and shoes and watches, etc. 

The general aims for the use of the $12 billion by USDA programs, consistent with our World Trade Organization requirements, are outlined below. This announcement does not violate rules of trade by unfair trade practices and it helps get food in the hands of those who need it here in the U.S. It harkens back to the purpose of other programs in years past. 

Even better is news that the payout from the USDA funds will benefit Indiana agriculture. Soy appears to be a big winner. I hope to see good payouts for pork producers who work hard to be good neighbors. The pork people are enduring unfair attacks around Indiana from activists who see pork as a fundraising target.  

The Market Facilitation Program (MFP) will allow the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to provide payments to corn, cotton, dairy, hog, sorghum, soybean, and wheat producers starting Sept. 4. For anyone who is not a farmer or a lender to the farmer, the MFP is the least interesting part of the announcement. 

The Food Purchase and Distribution Program will purchase up to $1.2 billion in commodities unfairly targeted by unjustified retaliation in a reboot of an old program to place food in the hands of the hungry. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) will administer the purchase program. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) will distribute the purchased food through nutrition assistance programs such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and child nutrition programs. For those who have been critical of the misuse and fraud involving “food stamp” programs, the food purchase and distribution program may offer some safeguards and allow the food to feed children and those who need it. Feeding kids food seems like a good idea for a government program. What would be a really great result is to couple the food with nutrition and preparation education, but one should not get too optimistic. 

The part of the announcement that provides hope for increased trade growth is an adaptation of the Foreign Agricultural Service’s (FAS) Agricultural Trade Promotion Program (ATP). Some $200 million in additional funds will be used to develop foreign markets for U.S. agricultural products. Again, optimistically, this part of the program will help U.S. agricultural exporters identify and access markets new to their exports. The adverse effects of other countries’ restrictions on U.S. exporters can be mitigated by expanding agricultural markets to a wide swath of the globe, so that there is not an unhealthy dependency on any specific country. When an exporting country is focused on one or a few countries as markets, its bargaining power may be compromised easily. Free trade should and can include fair trade for producers in the United States.   

As the USDA’s response to the trade issues was being announced, a lesser known and less critiqued USDA agency supported by tax dollars, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), turned its attention to broader domestic needs, by seeking direction from the American “stakeholders.” NIFA wants to become informed about the emerging needs and opportunities in food and agricultural sciences through the “NIFA Listens: Investing in Science to Transform Lives” initiative. The use of the condescending term “stakeholder” is irritating because few federal-income taxpaying members of the public who really comprise the stakeholders will actually voice their thoughts. Nevertheless, undaunted, NIFA Acting Director Tom Shanower stated, “We invite our stakeholders, scientists, and organizations from across the U.S. agriculture system and beyond to provide their input,” And, however optimistically, he added, “These sessions provide a chance for any interested party to help ensure NIFA’s research, education, and extension investments effectively and efficiently support the long-term prosperity and global preeminence of U.S. agriculture.”

So dear taxpayers, these listening sessions are your opportunity to provide feedback on these questions:

“In your field, what is the most-needed breakthrough in science/technology that would advance your agricultural enterprise?”

“When considering all of agriculture, what is the greatest challenge that should be addressed through NIFA’s research, education, and extension?”

“What is your top priority in food and agricultural research, extension, or education that NIFA should address?”

If, after consulting with one’s accountant, one learns that there are business reasons that may make the expenses of an in-person trip tax deductible, here are the four regional in-person listening sessions sites and dates:

Oct. 11, Hartford, Connecticut (RSVP by Thursday, Oct. 4); Oct. 18, New Orleans, Louisiana (RSVP by Thursday, Oct. 11); Oct. 25, Minneapolis, Minnesota (RSVP by Thursday, Oct. 18); Nov. 1, Albuquerque, New Mexico (RSVP by Wednesday, Oct. 25)

It is rather irksome that there are no in-person sites close to Hoosiers but we can wield the mighty keyboard if we pay attention. NIFA Listens website is a one-stop informational hub that is promised to keep you up to date on the sessions. Each session is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. and end no later than 5 p.m.  Live webcast will be available for each session, transcribed, and made available for playback. Session attendees must register via NIFA Listens website. In addition, written comments may be provided electronically through the stakeholder input form on the website or emailed by NIFAlistens@nifa.usda.gov (link sends e-mail) until Nov. 30. Feedback is welcome through any of the provided submission methods and will be gathered throughout the initiative.

I am going to send some “feedback.” I sure hope that I am not the only Hoosier who does. My feedback is made with the hope that NIFA and the rest of the users of words like “feedback” and “stakeholder” get a sense of how frustrating the bureaucratic and academic babble is to those of us are paying income taxes and property taxes to support the babble factor. 

We need to value more the research that meets real needs. Rigorous bench science is a critical, compelling need because it is high risk and therefore, the type of research work where the use of tax dollars is legitimate. Surveys, focus groups, and some epidemiology – not so much. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. It is the babble gobble (not just in research) that eats up our tax dollars. Research that does not even produce as much common sense as the Farmer’s Almanac is not worth the swap of tax dollars. We can stop funding it at no loss. When voodoo science is funded and touted as though it is science that creates new knowledge, it is time to give “feedback.” 

Aren’t you struck with curiosity about the research failings and why policy and law cannot rely on one or two studies? A review of the Social Sciences Replication Project by the nonprofit Center for Open Science (COS) in Charlottesville, Virginia is attention-grabbing. In this effort, many collaborators came together to check published scientific literature. They found that a large fraction of published studies do not yield the same results when done a second time.  A good explanation is available at http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/generous-approach-replication-confirms-many-high-profile-social-science-findings.

No, the world, let alone the United States, does not need more social science surveys asking loaded questions about things that are designed to get the researcher more study money. How many studies have you read that conclude saying more research is needed?  

Yeah, send me money.  
 
Chezem is a former Indiana Appeals Court judge and is a Purdue and Indiana University faculty member. She writes on agriculture and legal issues.