by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
Government backing for research and development in farm life has dropped dramatically at a time when other nations have maintained or increased their agricultural R&D interests, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Analysts at the USDA’s Economic Research Service say U.S. public agricultural R&D expenditures, even accounting for the rising cost of conducting research, have declined by about one-third since they peaked in 2002, from $7.6 billion to $5.2 billion.
Adjusted for inflation, U.S. public R&D spending on agriculture in 2019 stood about where it was in 1970, they note.
In the meantime, China has emerged as the largest supporter of agricultural R&D in the world, while India and Brazil, two countries with large agricultural bases, also have bumped up their contributions.
The authors of the report, released in early June, caution that private sector spending might offset some of the decline in public U.S. spending.
“Nonetheless, present trends may affect the U.S. role as a global leader in agricultural sciences and could lead to reduced U.S. agricultural trade competitiveness if U.S. agricultural productivity growth slows compared with other countries,” write Kelly P. Nelson and Keith Fuglie.
WHY IT MATTERS
The federal government funds about 64% of the total amount spent on public agricultural R&D, with state government and non-government sources accounting for the rest, Nelson and Fuglie say.
Most of the federal funds go through the USDA for agency dispersal or grants to universities and other institutions. The study says that public R&D investment is the main factor in long-term productivity growth in U.S. agriculture, with $20 in benefits for every $1 spent, based on long-term statistics.
“In addition to increasing farm productivity, public agricultural R&D investment also supports improvements in natural resources and forestry management, helps advance rural development, enhances food safety and quality, and informs markets and policy,” the authors say.
Though the federal government supplies most of the money, non-federal institutions such as land-grant universities, conduct the bulk of the research — about 70%. That research tends to be centered on commodity and resource problems of greatest interest to their states.
The USDA’s agencies, such as the Forest Service, perform the other 30% of the research.
“University research also plays a vital role in training the next generation of agricultural scientists,” the report says. “USDA agency research, on the other hand, focuses on issues of national or regional importance, provides critical research infrastructure such as plant genetic resource conservation, and supports the regulatory and program functions of USDA agencies.”
Land-grant universities and their state agricultural experimental stations account for more than half of total public agricultural R&D expenditures. State forestry and veterinary schools together accounted for 5% of public agricultural R&D in 2019.
The authors do not recommend any specific corrective action, though they note that some areas of public agricultural R&D are increasing, with slight upticks for historically Black colleges and universities, and universities outside the land-grant system.