If falling productivity and increasing crop yields seem counterintuitive, they’re not. Though crop yields have continued to increase, it is the rate of growth in productivity that has fallen from 2 percent in 1950 to slightly more than 1 percent in recent years. It is a decrease that is increasingly seen in direct correlation to reduced public funding for agricultural research.
From 1960 to 1980, public ag research grew by 3.2 percent per year. This leveled off with no net growth from 1980 to 1990 and net growth of only 0.6 percent from 1990 to 2009.
“By any measure of productivity, even looking at corn, which is doing comparatively well, productivity is still going up, but the rate of improvement is smaller,” said Julian Alston, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis. “If you care about farm productivity, you should be concerned about what is happening with government support for research. There is clear evidence of underinvestment in spite of private sector investments.”
In fact, private sector investments in agriculture are often seen as the reason public investment is “less” needed than in the past. Monsanto alone has a reported research budget for crop science that is close to or exceeds the entire USDA research budget, 40 percent of which goes for non-farm research. Massive investments in private research, particularly in biotech areas, get much of the credit for current crop yield increases although Alston and others would argue these are advances made on the backs of decades of university research and USDA Ag Research Service efforts.
“Even if the private sector was doing enough in applied research…and I say it isn’t…there still would be an underinvestment in basic research,” said Alston. “It is basic research that makes it possible for the applied research that private industry later does. Of the $4 billion private industry invests in ag-related research, the lion’s share, perhaps two thirds, is beyond the farm gate and not related to ag productivity. “
Simply maintaining public funding is always a challenge, especially in a time of budget cutting. One problem that makes basic research investments even harder to sell is the lag time between discovery and application. The initial work that led to modern corn hybridization using inbreeding was conducted at the Carnegie Institute for Experimental Evolution, Cold Springs Harbor, N.Y., in 1907 and 1908. Donald Jones, a graduate student doing research at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, New Haven, developed the first successful double cross corn hybrid in research conducted between 1916 and 1919. This set off the hybrid corn revolution, explained Wallace Huffman, distinguished professor of agriculture and economics, Iowa State University.
Basic Research Investment
Added to the problem are two major recessions in the past 10 years that have stressed state governments, resulting in reduced support at the state level. At the same time, an increasing percentage of essentially flat federal funding has moved from pre to post farm gate related research. Currently, approximately 40 percent of USDA research dollars are focused on non-farm research.
However, it is difficult to convince farmers to lobby for public funding for such long-term research in lieu of subsidies, suggested Huffman.
“It’s a trade-off for farmers. They can push for subsidies today or funding for research that will improve productivity in 20 years,” he said.
The fact that agricultural research is funded through the farm bill doesn’t help, noted Bev Durgan, University of Minnesota Extension dean and Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station director. Durgan serves as chair, Budget and Advocacy Committee (BAC) of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. All three positions place her in advocacy roles at the state and federal levels, working to raise awareness of the need for research and experiment station funding. One of the problems she faces is that research allocations are a minor part of the broad farm bill.
“The farm bill is seen as subsidizing farmers, though 70 percent of farm bill authorization is for food stamps and other food programs,” she said. “The size of the farm bill makes it hard for us to argue our case. Even when the farm bill authorizes spending, as the last one did at $700 million for the Agriculture, Food and Research Institute, Congress only appropriated $264 million for 2011.”
This shortfall was recently made worse when Congress decided to delete all earmarks from the current budget. Funding was lost for multi-state research programs in poultry, potato genetics and perhaps most importantly, funds to develop wheat varieties resistant to UG99, a wheat disease that has swept through Africa and is spreading rapidly to other countries. Eventually it will hit the U.S., and if research isn’t done now, we will not be prepared.
“We are now waiting to see if UG99 resistance will get funding through the USDA,” said Durgan. “Not having resistant varieties and only relying on fungicides is shortsighted economically and environmentally.”
BAC’s goal is to achieve full funding for ag research, said Durgan. She explained that it is a struggle to make the case that funding for agricultural research is as important as that for the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. A recent reorganization within the USDA to create the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) was intended to help make that case.
“NIFA has helped increase awareness of agriculture as a science and the importance of research funding for it,” said Durgan. “We have seen some increase in the competitive portion of NIFA funding.”
CAST Report Released
In another attempt to raise awareness of the importance of publicly funded agricultural research, the Council on Agriculture, Science and Technology (CAST) recently released a report on the subject. Huffman chaired the report, which opens by noting that a 30 percent increase in world population and a near doubling in real income per capita by 2050 will put unprecedented pressure on agricultural production inputs including land and water. Add to that the impact of climate change shifting ag production and increasing weather variability, and the need for increased productivity is greater than ever.
“We tried to provide insights to the different dimensions that ag contributes to, including the high rates of return, but also implications for the cost of food, the environment and energy,” explained Huffman. “We hoped that talking about a broader set of issues with respect to ag research could be a way of getting additional support for funding.”
Among the many points made by Huffman and his colleagues was a direct correlation between rapid growth in agricultural productivity in given states and past state and federal funding of agricultural research in those states. The report further points out nearly 30 studies identifying the high rate of return from public investment. They claimed one clear and direct benefit to the consumer has been a decline in household spending on food, from 22.3 percent in 1948 to 9.5 percent in 2009, yet total food consumption increased.
Changes in Funding
Traditionally, public investments have been made through federal block grants including formula funding to State Agricultural Experiment Station (SAES) and state appropriations. This has changed in recent years and continues to evolve. Competitive grants and contracts with federal agencies are on the rise. Increasingly, public research is being funded through grants from private industry, though these are limited to applied science, not the basic science research vital to new discoveries and future applications.
The problem is that private sector money is invested to reap private sector profits, noted Durgan. She pointed to research on herbicide-resistant weeds that was all done with public funding.
“In a perfect world, there needs to be a combination of private and public funding for research that meets the public need,” she said. “Because of reductions in state and federal funding, we are not going to be able to keep research strong without different models of funding.”
Durgan said licensing of publicly funded discoveries works with specific crops; however, that has proven of limited value, Huffman contends. The very nature of basic research reduces potential for income that generally occurs farther down the development pipeline. Alston suggested a variation on the Australian model and the commodity checkoffs in the U.S., where a percentage of the value of the crop…a checkoff is devoted just to research, not marketing and research.
Alston said, “Imagine 1 percent of the corn crop devoted to research, with the funds managed by a board with producer, government and industry representation,” he said. “We need a different approach. Government funding trends will continue going where they are going, and the private sector will continue doing what it is doing. We need meaningful change.”