Ag R&D: Are cutbacks in spending endangering future productivity?

If the U.S. is to help meet the challenges of producing the food needed by a growing world population, it needs to double investments in food and agricultural research over the next 10 years.

But, says a report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs — an independent, non-partisan organization committed to influencing important global issues — the productivity gains of agriculture that occurred in the 20th century as a result of cropland expansion and scientific breakthroughs are now at risk.

The U.S. and other high income countries are losing their edge in agricultural R

“It is far from assured that agricultural output can climb enough to keep pace with expected demand unless strong action is taken to alter the global food system,” says the report by Meagan Keefe.

Among the challenges: 800 million people in the world who are chronically hungry; growing constraints on water and land resources, which will make increasing production the way it was done in the past impossible; more than 3 million children dying annually due to under-nutrition; and chronic disease, caused in large part by unhealthy diets, a leading cause of death worldwide.

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“Without new strategies to make sure food production can meet demand, the world will face food shortages and higher food prices,” the report cautions. “The entire agriculture research enterprise in the U.S. and around the world needs to focus on solving the future challenges of the global food system.”

But while “robust spending” on agricultural research and development “fueled dramatic increases in production” in the past, “cutbacks in spending have allowed past productivity gains to slip away as economic and environmental circumstances change to undermine those gains.”

Despite the importance of research for boosting productivity, as well as the “clear need for increased productivity… the rate of agricultural productivity is slowing worldwide, including a dramatic slowdown in the U.S.” Growth in the U.S. dropped by half after 1990, the report says, and since 1994 growth in public agricultural research spending has declined by more than 20 percent.

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While the private sector has picked up some of the slack in R&D, “there is no substitute for public sector research … that builds knowledge … and feeds future innovations.” Further, “the U.S. and other high income countries are losing their edge in R&D spending to China and others. In 1980, the U.S. was the world’s leader in public funding of agriculture,” but about 2000 China began “dramatically increasing its investment and has now surpassed the U.S.”

Investments in agricultural and food research over the next 10 years, the report says, “should be expanded beyond simply increasing production,” but rather increasing production “in a way that uses fewer resources and optimizes nutrition outcomes, while providing solid incomes to food producers.”

A new “multidisciplinary science of agriculture is needed, and should be based on increasing production, nutrition, and incomes while using less land and water resources. This requires improving human health through accessible, nutritious food, improving food safety, and reducing food waste along the supply chain.”

The U.S. is a global leader in agricultural research, holding almost 15 percent of the world’s public agricultural knowledge stock, the report notes, and “U.S. leadership is crucial for revitalizing the research institutions and investments needed to increase productivity, produce more nutritious food, use fewer resources, and adapt to climate change.

Download or read the entire report at

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