Click HERE to watch Sen. Collins’ Q&A on Potato research.
At an Appropriations hearing on May 10, U.S. Senator Susan Collins sharply criticized the Biden Administration’s proposal to eliminate a successful potato breeding research program that supports critical work at the University of Maine. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack testified at the hearing to justify his Department’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget.
This is the second consecutive year that the administration has proposed to shut down the Potato Breeding Research Program. During the 2021 appropriations process, Senator Collins rallied support for this vital agriculture research among her colleagues on the Appropriations Committee. As a result of that effort, Congress not only rejected the elimination of the potato research program but increased funding by $250,000 to $3 million.
“Given the strong congressional support, I was very surprised to see that your budget is again proposing to zero out this program, especially when the Administration is seeking an overall increase of more than $2 billion in discretionary spending for USDA,” Senator Collins said. “The University of Maine is the leader in the research in this program, and it has worked with growers to develop a new variety named the Caribou russet that is producing high yields and is much more disease resistant. And one need look no further than the recent outbreak of the potato wart in Prince Edward Island in Canada to understand the importance of continuing to invest in research that produces hardier crops and protects our domestic markets. So my question for you, given Congress’ action last year, given what a small amount this is in the context of your entire budget, why are you again seeking to completely eliminate funding for the Potato Breeding Research Program, which has been proven successful in helping our growers prevent agricultural and economic losses?”
Despite the proposed $2 billion increase in funding for USDA, Secretary Vilsack claimed that flat funding for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service was to blame for his proposal to cut the Potato Breeding Research Program.
“Obviously, if Congress basically directs us to maintain that program, we obviously will,” Secretary Vilsack responded. “But I would hope that it does so in the context of significantly increased resources for ARS, including resources to improve the facilities, part of the challenges we’re now facing, we have 118 facility projects, roughly 30 of them are either fully or partially funded, that leaves quite a few that aren’t, and so it’s a matter of resources, but if we have more resources, we can do more work.
Senator Collins pointed out that cutting funding for research was penny wise and pound foolish.
“[Y]ou end up spending more money if you have to provide disaster assistance, or other kinds of assistance, than if you invest upfront in the research that produces a more disease resistant crop,” Senator Collins countered.
When Secretary Vilsack previously served as the Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama Administration, he also tried to cut the Potato Breeding Research Program, an effort that failed due to Senator Collins’ strong advocacy. In addition, Senator Collins successfully reversed a policy pushed by Secretary Vilsack that would have excluded nutritious potatoes from school lunch programs nationwide.