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Focus on Agriculture

July 16, 2014

Will Public Research Keep up with Demands on Agriculture?

By Robert Giblin

Opportunities, challenges and visibility for how agriculture will meet future needs for food, fiber and energy are greater than ever, yet public funding for ag research may not be keeping up.

The abundance, efficiencies of production, safety and quality of food in the U.S. are direct results of agricultural research conducted during the last 150 years. The Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant universities to educate citizens about agriculture, home economics and other professions. In 1887, the Hatch Act established funding to support land-grant universities and promote the advancement of U.S. agriculture. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act created Cooperative Extension.

Private industry, and other academic institutions and federal agencies, land-grant universities and Extension are all critical partners in ag research.

Publicly funded ag research experienced sustained growth from the 1930s until 1980. In 1980 private investment in ag research and development surpassed public funding.

Most private research funds are channeled to applied research or commercialization of product, with a strong emphasis on crop seeds and biotech, farm machinery, and animal breeding and genetics. Private research on crop protection and chemicals has declined and there is evidence that animal health research funding may be shrinking.

Public research typically is focused on “basic” research or the fundamental sciences, as well as food safety, resource conservation, farming practices or other areas that either serve as the launching pads for applied research or address needs where there are no direct private incentives.

Agriculture Department research funding flows through a few key channels, including: the Agricultural Research Service, which conducts in-house or intramural research projects within USDA; the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which funds extramural research at the state level through land-grant universities and the State Agricultural Experiment Stations; the Economic Research Service; and the Forest Service.

States partner with the federal government to fund research. Universities and veterinary colleges also receive money from state legislatures, private contributors and other federal agencies.

However, public spending on agricultural research is stable to declining. From 2000 through 2015 (projected), USDA budget authority for ag research will have declined 4.6 percent, with ARS losing nearly 28 percent, in 1914 constant dollars. Though actual research dollars increased, USDA research budget authority has been declining from its high in 2003, and fell nearly 16 percent from 1976 to 2015 (projected levels) in 1914 constant dollars.

Norman Borlaug often is credited with being the father of the first Green Revolution, which increased agricultural production worldwide from the 1940s to late 1960s, through research, development and technology. Before his death at 95 years of age, in 2009, Norman Borlaug called for a second Green Revolution.

Citing the need to produce as much food in the next 50 years as we produced in the last 10,000 years, Borlaug said the Green Revolution hasn’t been won and the successes of the first revolution may have led to a false sense of security about our ability to bring worldwide food security.

During the first Green Revolution, the United States was a primary beneficiary and emerged as a global agricultural leader, with U.S. consumers benefitting. From 1948-2012, U.S. household disposable income spent on food declined from nearly 25 percent to 10 percent. Those in other nations typically spend much more.

The need to increase funding for agricultural research is gaining recognition. For example, a President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report issued in December 2012 identified seven key areas driving research needs: managing new pests, pathogens and invasive plants; increasing the efficiency of water use; reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture; growing food in a changing climate; managing the production of bioenergy; producing safe and nutritious food; and assisting with global food security and maintaining abundant yields.

Numerous organizations are calling for increased research spending in anticipation of meeting the food needs for an additional 2 to 3 billion people–9.1 billion by 2050. Of that, about 7.5 billion–our current world’s population–will live in urban areas. The number of farmers and land available for farming will decline, while pressure to minimize the environmental footprint of agriculture and meet increasing social pressures will increase.

With per-capita income increases and a growing middle class worldwide that has an increased appetite for proteins and higher-quality food, the amount of food available to meet future needs must be two to three times what it is now.

While the needs and demands placed on agriculture are greater than ever, meeting all of those needs will require both new approaches and significant investments in agricultural research.


Robert Giblin consults, writes and speaks about agriculture and food industry issues and trends.