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French Fries, Research and the Economy

A 30 percent return on an investment would be great for any of us in this era of stock market declines. Yet, numerous studies have shown that basic and applied research in agriculture can yield such returns. A current example is in potato variety development.

As university scientists readied an announcement of the release of a new potato variety resistant to virulent strains of late blight, I worried about how close we are to losing research essential to the survival of entire sectors of agriculture and the jobs created in the food processing sector.

In eight years as dean of the Washington State University College of Agriculture and Home Economics, budget reductions have forced me to close out over 15 percent of our agricultural research and Cooperative Extension programs. What if our involvement in the potato variety development program had been among the casualties?

Potatoes are a big business in Washington. Last year, growers harvested a crop worth more than $550 million. Processing and retailing turns the raw product into a $1.5 billion enterprise. Food processing as an industrial sector employs thousands in Washington; but it is dependent on farmers being able to grow the crops.

As big as the Washington potato industry is, its health is precarious. Late blight, the disease that destroyed crops in Europe and lead to famine in Ireland in the 1840s, has made a comeback. Dramatic increases in late blight have been reported around the world since the early 1980s and more aggressive strains have migrated to Washington. These strains have developed resistance to the fungicide that potato growers have relied on to stop them.

On Feb.5 at the annual statewide Potato Conference in Moses Lake, WSU scientists unveiled a new variety that has dramatically improved resistance to the disease. The new potato is the product of a collaborative plant breeding effort involving scientists at University of Idaho, Oregon State and Washington State universities, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

Growers, processors and consumers are expected to benefit. The new variety holds promise of 10 percent higher yields. Even if only 20 percent of the farmers adopt the new varieties, a $10-11 million benefit results. They also should benefit from lower production costs because of reduced need for fungicides. An increase in processing quality and reduced losses should benefit French fry processors — the biggest users of Washington potatoes — by another $6 million. Consumers will benefit because they will receive a high quality product delivered to them at a competitive price.

For organic producers, the yield increase and net returns demonstrate the feasibility of organic production without the use of fungicides.

All of this comes from an investment of less than $1.4 million a year in state, federal and grant money for all potato research at WSU.

If we had been forced to cut the potato research and extension program over the last decade, as we have done to dairy, hops, berries, asparagus, hay, alfalfa, onions, ornamentals and nursery plants, hybrid poplars and poultry, these results might have never become available to Washington.

This is but one example of the pay-off from long-term state investment in agricultural research and Cooperative Extension. Continued erosion of funding puts agriculture, the number one industry in Washington, at risk. In the 1990’s Washington ranked 44th in state support for agricultural research, providing only $5.13 for research for every $1000 of agricultural cash receipts. The average for all states was $17.11 for every $1000 of cash receipts, over three times the Washington figure.

The under investment means we are not able to address environmental issues in agricultural production, food safety and quality concerns, and economic opportunities or new markets. How will we discover the natural defenses of the plant, or the natural enemy of the pest, without an investment in basic plant sciences? How can one apply the breakthroughs in biotechnology to breeding programs or pest management, if research is cut further?

These discoveries will not happen or be applied if we cannot pay our faculty competitively, or if we don’t have the sophisticated lab equipment, or even the farm equipment, such as tractors and planters, to do the research.

Who knows what discoveries and economic benefits might have been in the areas we have cut? I am pleased to report on the potato research results; but if funding continues to be cut, what area of agricultural research will be the next victim of budget cuts? Will it be potato research? Tree fruit? Wheat? Jobs, export markets, safe food, and environmental quality are all at risk.

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