Unlike in many other parts of the U.S. economy, the public sector rather than the private sector has historically been the dominant player in the conduct of research and development (R&D) directly used by agriculture. The U.S. public sector has also been the largest performer of agricultural R&D worldwide.

In recent years, however, this status quo changed substantially. Between 1970 and 2008, the share of total food and agricultural R&D conducted in the United States by the public sector was relatively stable at around 50 percent. But, by 2013, that share had fallen to under 30 percent. This dropoff was due to a decline in Government spending on public agricultural R&D as well as a surge in R&D spending by the private sector. Between 2008 and 2013, for example, real (inflation-adjusted) public food and agricultural R&D fell by about 20 percent while real private R&D increased by 64 percent.

The United States also lost its position as top global performer of public agricultural R&D, falling behind China in 2009 through at least 2013. Among countries with substantial investments in public sector R&D for agriculture, the U.S. led with 20-23 percent of the global total between 1990 and 2006. By 2013, this share had fallen to 13 percent. Nonetheless, the U.S. remains the top producer of R&D outputs by several measures, at least as of 2013. Based on the latest available data, the U.S. produces more journal articles and patents related to agricultural R&D than any other country, though by a smaller margin than in the past.

The longer term impact of these funding shifts, however, may have negative implications for future agricultural growth. Total agricultural output in the United States grew by 169 percent between 1948 and 2013. This rise was not due to increases in agricultural land or labor—in fact, both inputs declined over the period. Rather, it stemmed from the adoption of a whole suite of innovations in crop and livestock breeding, nutrient use, pest management, farm practices, and farm equipment and structures. These innovations are the fruits of agricultural R&D.