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U.S. industry must collaborate to provide dairy research funding

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

As we reach the end of August and thThe U.S. dairy industry has experienced significant growth in the last decade or so, thanks in part to past investments in research that have led to current advances in technology (e.g. whey processing). To continue this growth will require a strong financial investment in research and a source of trained dairy researchers, both of which have significantly decreased over the last decade. These reductions should be of great concern to the dairy industry, universities and farmers, as this decline in support directly impacts the future ability of the United States to succeed in a competitive global marketplace.

A decrease in “basic” research dollars, meaning those dollars supporting graduate students, should be the area of most concern for the dairy industry. When money for research projects is unavailable, graduate students are not able to move forward with their degrees and important research and training opportunities are lost.

Consider that in order to achieve a masters or Ph.D. in food science, a student must not only be accepted into a school, but a faculty member must also have outside funding to support the student’s research project. This funding generally comes from USDA, the Dairy Research Institute (DRI) or a similar organization. Without this basic research funding for projects, the students are not able to join or graduate from a food science program.

Across the United States the number of active university faculty conducting dairy foods research continues to decrease, mainly due to a decrease in research funding for this field. A decline in research activity is damaging to the U.S. dairy industry as important new insights and technologies are lost along with the ability to train and educate future dairy scientists.

In 2000 there were approximately 30 dairy research projects (i.e., publically-funded projects, not confidential industry projects) taking place on a yearly basis at CDR/UW-Madison. Today, there are less than 15 projects at this institution and by 2012 basic research funding dollars had decreased by 50 percent compared to 2003. This decrease also can be seen in the number of graduate students enrolled in the food science graduate program at UW-Madison. In 2000 there were 64 graduate students enrolled in our graduate program. Today there are 42, only some of whom are focused on dairy.

This trend is not just seen in Wisconsin, but around the nation and at other dairy research centers. A loss in trained professionals puts the United States at a distinct disadvantage, especially when compared with many competing European countries, or Australia/New Zealand, that are offering free or subsidized education to high achieving dairy science students. A robust dairy industry is important, but without the ability to recruit and offer opportunities to masters and Ph.D. students, the U.S. dairy industry is certain to lack a competitive edge going forward. As General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt recently stated at a UW Regents meeting, “Everybody in the world is moving fast. If we’re not moving fast, we’re going to fall behind … for 20 years, we let R&D go down, year after year after year. Companies, schools, national labs. That’s a losing hand.”

One of the most common complaints I hear from U.S. dairy companies is the difficulty they face in recruiting well-trained, experienced scientists with a dairy foods background. As mentioned above, the reduction in dairy foods research funding has led to fewer graduate research opportunities and projects. In an industry where very few companies have a robust R&D department, this connection to research centers, universities and graduate students is essential to solving major industry issues and moving the industry forward. Companies often question where their next manager of their technical or R&D areas might come from; ultimately they should come from today’s graduate students.

Research centers, such as CDR, have staff that are here to support industry (i.e., with product development or short course training) and leverage current research to help companies solve issues and grow their markets. At CDR, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board annually provides nearly $2 million and DRI provides about $600,000 to support staff and these industry (applications) programs. This funding comes from the checkoff program, which is run through USDA, and is extremely important and necessary to maintain staff and our industry programs.

However, it does not provide funding for graduate students. It is important to note that the farmer-funded dairy checkoff program has continued to provide consistent funding for the CDR industry application programs but research dollars for graduate projects have been steadily declining.

This change impacts the entire U.S. dairy research scene. According to Professor Todd Klaenhammer (Director of the Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center at North Carolina State University): “DMI/DRI is the only national organization that currently provides significant support for graduate research on dairy foods. It will make a major difference if they are unable to support a strong national product research platform, largely through the dairy research centers, which provide new technologies, trained scientists/technologists and solutions to emerging problems facing the dairy industries. These resources are critical to our industry partners and the competitiveness of the U.S. dairy industry at large.”

A graduate student working with CDR, or a similar U.S. dairy center, gains real world knowledge and hands-on experience while applying their research directly to industry problems. Without basic research funding, however, centers cannot support graduate research and afford these excellent learning opportunities to graduates and the industry. In the United States typical costs to support graduate students exceed $30,000 per year per student (including stipend, tuition fees and other health benefits). That’s why it is essential that in the United States, the dairy industry and universities work together to develop a long-term approach to funding a strong basic research program.

While dairy research dollars are declining in the United States, programs in New Zealand and Ireland have pledged additional money to support basic dairy research and these programs involve partnerships between national organizations and the dairy companies. In New Zealand, DairyNZ and Fonterra have partnered to lead a Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) program that will fund research into new products, increase on-farm productivity, reduce environmental impacts and improve dairy education. This new program is currently helping to support 11 post-doctorates, 13 Ph.D. scholarships and one masters candidate all working on dairy processing research projects related to the PGP program and its goals. Similarly, several years ago, Ireland started Food for Health, which is a program that will work to research, develop, market and sell “nutritional ingredients and functional food products to improve people’s health and wellness.” The 22 million euro project was funded through multiple partnerships with the dairy industry directly contributing 2 million euros. A second round of this program will be starting soon.

It is clear that our major competitor countries are showing a long-term commitment to relevant dairy product research by investing in programs that support the future of dairy science. To be competitive, the United States needs to continue to build on the success of the dairy center program, which has been supported by checkoff dollars for more than 25 years and has gained wide industry appreciation. Now is the perfect time for the U.S. dairy industry, farmers, government agencies and universities to work together to develop a long-term funding program for dairy product research that will sustain the United States as a leader in the manufacture and export of dairy products.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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