Because of stagnant funding levels for public agriculture research and development (R&D), the United States is falling far behind competitors, such as China and Brazil, a new report says. The growing funding gap poses risks to American farmers’ productively and profitability, as well as to the bountiful and affordable food supply enjoyed by American consumers, according to the authors of the report that was jointly commissioned by Farm Journal Foundation and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).

While private-sector funding for agricultural R&D has been increasing, U.S. public spending has been flat for the past decade. The report found that a boost in public research is needed to continue American agriculture’s productivity success. 

An innovation leader

“The U.S. has always been a leader in agricultural innovation, but we’re at risk of losing that advantage by falling behind the rest of the world in research and development,” said Zippy Duvall, AFBF president.

The report, Duvall said, shows the clear need for agricultural research to benefit not only farmers, but all Americans. “Research will unlock the answers to growing more crops even as we face increasingly volatile weather, help to create a more resilient food system supply chain and provide food that’s higher in nutritional value. It’s the golden ticket.”

Stagnating investments

U.S. public spending on agricultural research has stagnated in recent decades, according to the report, conducted by IHS Markit Agribusiness Consulting Group. For example, U.S. Department of Agriculture agricultural research ag­­ency budgets have been relatively flat at around $4.2 billion in 2020 compared with $4.1 billion in 2010. 

During the same period, U.S. competitors including China, Brazil and India have all been accelerating their public funding for agricultural research and development. China, for example, in 2009 became the world’s largest public funder of agricultural R&D.

New innovations are crucial so that farmers can increase their productivity and meet rising global demand for food, even as climate change intensifies, the report said. The world population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, and food production will need to increase by 60% to 70% to meet rising demand. 

Public investment is also crucial to powering innovation throughout agriculture, the re­­port said. Private companies have less of an incentive to research subjects that benefit society broadly but offer potentially lower monetary returns. Private companies primarily focus research spending on only a few major crop and livestock markets, leaving other sectors under-explored. 

Covid shows dangers

COVID-19 should be a wake-up call that more public research funding is needed to address unexpected shocks, said Tricia Beal, CEO of Farm Journal Foundation. “The pandemic created huge challenges for agricultural supply chains around the world. It also showed just how quickly pathogens can spread. Increased public support for agricultural research is crucial for finding solutions to make our entire food system more resilient.”

In particular, the report said farmers and other stakeholders would benefit if additional public research spending were directed toward crop breeding, crop protection, animal health, animal diseases and food-borne illnesses, climate research and food and agricultural supply chains.