Concern decline in public funding for R&D may hinder future agricultural growth in developed nations

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

 © GettyImages/ Picsfive
© GettyImages/ Picsfive
Publicly funded spending for feed, agriculture and fisheries research and development is dropping in high-income countries but such research is expanding in developing markets, says USDA.

The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) released details of an examination of research spending globally in relation to feed and agriculture development.

The report​ – Agricultural Research Investment and Policy Reform in High-Income Countries​ – found that public investment in such research has stalled since 2009.

The US has maintained a higher funding level for publically funded feed and ag related research – which includes primary agriculture and fisheries developments – however, the country still saw a decline in the amount it supported, the report authors said.

“The US continues to spend the most of any high-income country on public agricultural R&D, although the US share of the total fell from 35% in 1960 to less than 25% by 2013.”

“As recently as 1990, public agricultural R&D spending by high-income countries accounted for about 36% of total public and private spending on food and agricultural research worldwide, but that share had fallen to under 25% by 2011,”​ they said. “Even though public agricultural R&D spending by high-income countries rose during most of this period, it rose faster in developing countries and the private sector.”

Overall, public spending on feed and agricultural research and development in high-income countries was about $18.2bn in 2011 while it was $24.1bn by other countries, they said.

There is a concern that the decline in public funding for research and development could hinder future agricultural growth if it is not offset by additional support, private funding or work done in developing countries, they said. Although work done in developing countries or the private sector also brings other challenges.

“Private agricultural R&D, which is conducted mainly by firms that manufacture farm inputs (e.g., farm machines, agricultural chemicals, seeds, animal pharmaceuticals), significantly underinvests in many vital areas, such as pre-commercial science and technology platforms, environmental protection, and food safety and nutrition,”​ the authors said. Additionally, research can be specific to an environment, meaning that work done in a tropical area may not directly apply to a temperate production facility in terms of challenges or ingredients available.

Past US feed, ag investments

Investment in research and development from both public and private institutions have supported the growth in agricultural productivity for several countries, said the authors. Funding also has supported sector competitiveness and supported output.

“The economic value of productivity improvement has been high relative to R&D spending in these countries, leading to high economic returns to public agricultural research,” ​they added.

Some recent research projects that have gained public funding in the US include a project at Auburn University exploring phytase use in feed to improve the nutritional uptake in catfish and reduce fish mortality, efforts to improve strains of organic feed corn and barley and the use of camelina​ presscake in feed for organically raised swine.

Other projects supported by funding through grants from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture examined the potential for growing switchgrass in damaged areas to provide feed and improve soil quality, the USDA reported. The grants also funded an effort to develop carinata​ as a feed ingredient and for fuel.

Report highlights

In several high-income countries, including the US, public-sector funding for agricultural research started in 19th century, the report authors said. It tended to be among the first scientific areas governments supported.

“In many countries, initial public sector efforts were inspired by the desire to link science-based research with practical information relevant to farmers,”​ they said. Much of this research was designed to support interests for each country, like lowering food costs, improving incomes or boosting animal production.   

When expenditures are evaluated in terms of constant 2011 purchasing power parity, in the US, spending for research and development in 1960 was about $1.39bn, they said. The amount spent peaked near 2010 at $4.8bn and dropped to $4.3bn by 2013.

“Between 1960 and 2010, aggregate annual spending on agricultural R&D by these countries increased from $3.93bn to $18.49bn but then fell to $17.51bn in 2013, in constant 2011 purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars,”​ the authors said. “Research spending in individual countries followed varied patterns, but the aggregate increased consistently until recent years. In 2013, the United States, Japan, France, Germany, and South Korea had the largest public (government and university) agricultural R&D systems, each spending at least $1bn.”

As public funding has declined, the private sector has established an important role in research and development, they said. Some of the elements supporting private research include technological opportunities from advancements in nutrition, biotechnology and information along with strengthened intellectual property rights.

“One reason why the growth of private R&D has not closed the underinvestment gap is that private R&D is an imperfect substitute for public R&D,” ​they said. “The downstream, relatively narrow focus and applied nature of much private R&D suggests that there continues to be a significant role for governments to directly finance much agricultural research.”

An additional pathway to support research has been through support for commodity boards – like those in the US for sorghum or soybeans, they said. However, much of that funding has been channeled toward the promotion of the commodity rather than research into it.

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