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Study: Ag research funding drops, decline threatens productivity gains

A new report reinforces what many agriculturalists already know: Public-sector spending on agriculture research in the U.S. and many other high-income countries continues to decline, challenging farmers' ability to produce enough food to meet growing demand.

Public ag research and spending development peaked in 2009 and, adjusted for inflation, fell by an average of 1.5 percent annually from 2009 to 2013, according to the report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Service.

The multi-year drop was the first sustained decline in more than 50 years—a period in which ag productivity nearly doubled, reflecting public-sector spending on research and development.

As the report puts it, "Productivity-led agricultural growth during the latter half of the 20th century largely stemmed from investments in agricultural R&D and the application of industrial inputs in agriculture."

The report, by Paul Heisey and Keith Fuglie, measured high-income countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Based in Paris and founded in 1961, the organization and its 35 member countries seek to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

Many high-income countries began spending less on ag research following the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, with the contraction particularly pronounced in the U.S. and Southern Europe/Mediterranean region, the report says.

Another finding: The U.S. has become a proportionately smaller player in ag research funding. Though "the United States continues to spend the most of any high-income country on public agricultural R&D, the U.S. share of the total fell from 35 percent in 1960 to less than 25 percent by 2013," the report says.

Ag's share of total public research funding has declined over time, as well. By 2013, ag's share of all public research/development spending in high-income countries was 5.2 percent, down from 9.1 percent in 1981, according to the report.

Ag research helps in two ways: generating new productivity gains and maintaining current levels of productivity. The latter, so-called "maintenance research," protects past productivity gains threatened by the emergence of new pests and crop diseases, among other challenges.

"Without a steady stream of new technologies and techniques to address these challenges, agricultural productivity and output could fall," the report says.

Here's a link to the new report.

This 2013 Agweek article took an extended look at declining ag research spending.

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