Ag needs R&D

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Last week, Drovers/CattleNetwork ran a commentary from the agricultural deans at the University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech, Iowa State University and The Ohio State University, outlining the critical importance of agricultural science and research. Now, results of a USDA study published in the journal Science reinforce that contention while documenting the trend toward more privately funded research in agriculture.

The Science article’s authors, from USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), note that most of the increase in global agricultural production over the past half-century has come from raising crop and livestock yields rather than through farmland expansion. Investment in research and innovation drove these productivity gains, but since around 1990, there has been a decline in the rate of yield improvements. Part of the reason could be that the rate of growth in public spending on agricultural research and development (R&D) has also fallen.

The agricultural deans cite the drought of 2012 to illustrate the value of agricultural R&D, noting that in Iowa, the last significant drought in 1988 resulted in a 35 percent decrease in corn yields from the year before. In this drought year, Iowa corn yields dropped only about 17 percent from 2011. Much of the difference results from public and private research in plant genetics and cropping systems.

Continued advancements in agricultural productivity will be critical in avoiding food shortages, skyrocketing food prices, starvation and unrest as the world’s population grows and available land and resources for agricultural production shrink.

But who will fund future R&D as government spending tightens? The ERS researchers found that private spending has contributed to the overall growth in R&D for agricultural in the face of slowing or stagnant public funding, but addressed a narrower set of research topics and industries than publicly funded R&D.

Globally, about half or more of all private investment in food and agricultural research and development has focused on food manufacturing, rather than areas that directly increase agricultural production such as

animal genetics, animal nutrition, animal health, farm machinery, fertilizers, crop seed, biotechnology and agricultural chemicals. Globally, private companies invested approximately $1.47 billion toward research into biofuels as of 2009.

Within the beef-cattle industry, pharmaceutical companies regularly fund university trials to test and prove the efficacy of their products. Breed associations and private companies have funded university research in genomics and in advancing specific traits such as feed efficiency or disease resistance.

We sometimes hear complaints that private funding could introduce bias to university research, with researchers more interested in the next grant than in objective data. Such a bias, however, would not benefit scientists or sponsors. If a company’s product does not do what they intend, or has adverse effects, the company would rather find out in a university trial than have their reputation damaged in the marketplace. And university scientists historically have stuck to the facts. If for example, a cattle growth promotant has a potential downside for carcass quality along with improving gains and efficiency, researchers have laid out the data. Companies subsequently worked with them to develop management solutions to minimize the downside and optimize economic benefits.

We’ll hope that public investment in agricultural research endures and grows, particularly that for basic research into subjects that will not generate financial returns in the short term. But in many cases, companies with financial interest in the outcomes will be our best hope for funding research to help agriculture keep pace with food demand.


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Graybull    
Wyo  |  November, 27, 2012 at 07:05 AM

Why would we want to spend more of our hard earned money on the type of research that has often lead us in the wrong direction?

Gray    
VA  |  November, 27, 2012 at 09:41 AM

Mr./Ms. Graybull's question might make sense if he/she defined wrong direction.

Devon    
Montana  |  November, 27, 2012 at 09:53 AM

Private funding of agricultural research inevitably leads to proprietary ownership of results, agricultural patents, and ownership of the knowledge created. Private corporations are already "owning" knowledge which has been researched, AND FUNDED, by public, taxpayer funded universities. Yes, research is crucial. Yes, increased food production is crucial. There is plenty of land for increased food production- now we must freely pass on the knowledge for low-input, high production, locally based farming to people worldwide if we are to avoid famines, wars, and skyrocketing food prices. Petroleum based agriculture is only part of the solution. We must also research and teach farmers to raise food with the resources that are locally available. Cover crops, humus creation, animal manures. Building soil health is crucial to increased food production, whether we are discussing food for livestock, or food for humans.

jaime    
usa  |  November, 27, 2012 at 10:55 AM

Chicken Little scares that end the use of organophosphates, Temek and that slander GMO crops seem to nullify sound research efforts. Maybe money would be better spent countering Chicken Little directly or indirectly before going on to more research that seems to be entering a hostile world totally unarmed.

Joe Itle    
Martinsburg  |  November, 27, 2012 at 06:06 PM

I have always contended we are where we are in agriculture because of research and development in previous years. I personally think R&D funds in the proposed Farm bill should be increased and the SNAP funds decreased. Why provide more money to purchase food when limiting funds for developing new technology which will be needed in future years to produce more food?

john    
Mn  |  November, 27, 2012 at 09:00 PM

Obviously, you do not farm! One glove does not fit all and in my 40 plus years of grain and livestock farming, all we do is to continue to learn, adjust and change. And hopefully, grow our own replacements, whom have hands on from and early age. JHP

maxine    
SD  |  December, 10, 2012 at 05:46 PM

It makes sense to use a combination of funding sources, and even cooperative funding between government and private money, but wherever the source, it HAS to have some directing by real ranchers and farmers as well as the highly educated folks and the 'dreamers' among us. Equally important is sound financial management and control to assure good returns on investment AND equitable benefits to the participants. Equitable, and honest, but don't fall for the highly overrated "fair" designation so overly popular today. Equal OPPORTUNITY is fair. Letting society or government deterine what is "fair" is a total failure.


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