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.