IN the U.S., one in 12 jobs is tied to food and agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for research Dr. Cathy Woteki explained that, as a nation, the U.S. has been immensely successful at producing enough food for domestic needs while also being a major world exporter of food.
Without a strong investment in agricultural research, however, that may be in jeopardy.
"The combination of research leading to new innovation and then knowing how to apply it is enormously important to the prosperity of our farming, food and agriculture sector," Woteki explained.
She said she believes that success relies on a combination of two things. First, farmers have had access to new and improved innovations, including seed varieties or genetic information to improve livestock. To complement the innovations, a host of resources have been made available through cooperative extension and research with the aim to make farming operations economically viable.
However, Woteki voiced deep concerns about the trajectory of funding for agricultural research and education. Funding has been stagnant in the past two decades, with no real growth in appropriations for USDA's intramural and extramural research.
The last three years have brought even greater research funding cuts, amounting to a nearly 20% reduction, she said. "With respect to innovation and education, it doesn't bode well for the future to have such a reduction in our agricultural sciences," Woteki added.
Paul Heisey, senior economist at USDA's Economic Research Service, said meeting projections for future world food demand will require more research dollars.
"If we continue with the same trajectory, our position, in terms of being able to meet domestic demand as well as being a major player of world markets, is at risk," he said.
USDA researchers looked at three different budget scenarios and evaluated the research funding levels needed to keep pace with a burgeoning population by 2050 (Figure).
Heisey explained that from post-World War II until 2009, agricultural research annually increased an average of 1.5%. Today, the rate of agricultural productivity growth is less than 1% per year.
If growth continues to trend downward to less than 1%, U.S. agricultural output will increase just 40% by 2050. However, if R&D spending increases nearly 5% per year, output could climb 80% and sufficiently help meet the world's food needs.
"If we don't invest at a somewhat higher level, there is a possibility that we will see a rise in food prices," Heisey warned. "The most visible to the general populous would be that food prices would no longer continue to decline in real terms but increase. It really is too early to tell if that is starting now."
Woteki said she recognizes that Congress faces a difficult assignment in trying to address the nation's big economic problems. Agricultural research is often one of the last topics brought up in authorizing and appropriating committees, but she said it is important to stress that a long-term investment will provide long-term food security.
Woteki said the government is looking for new ways to partner with the private sector on improving agricultural research.
The topic was in the spotlight in December 2012 when the President's Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) released a report that examined whether the agriculture sector is ready to meet the challenges ahead.
The PCAST report notes that the U.S. is deriving a substantial societal return on its current investments in agricultural research. Based on an analysis of nearly three dozen studies focused on the impact of agricultural research on food, feed and energy production and on food safety and nutrition over the past several decades, PCAST concluded that the economy has gained at least $10 in benefits for every $1 invested in agricultural research.
The report prioritizes the top seven scientific challenges facing agriculture: manage new pests, pathogens and invasive plants, increase water use efficiency, reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture, adapt to a changing climate and accommodate demands for bioenergy — all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad.
Woteki said one of the PCAST report's major recommendations is establishment of six large, multidisciplinary innovation institutes focused on emerging challenges to agriculture, to be supported by public/private partnerships.
PCAST recommended an initial new federal investment of $25 million per year per institute, or $150 million total per year, for no fewer than five years. Woteki said the agency is still finalizing budget suggestions for the next fiscal year, but this is definitely on the drawing board.
The PCAST report calls for rebalancing USDA's research budget away from commodities such as corn, soy, rice, wheat and cotton — which today account for 36% of the agency's intramural research budget — to non-commercial research for the public good and workforce.
The report states that the private sector is already motivated to invest in improvements to these crops, so "USDA should aim more of its resources at targets that offer fewer immediate benefits to the private sector."
Heisey did note that animal agriculture research has seen more public research. There is substantial cooperation in livestock genetics and genomic research between the private sector and public and university researchers.
"We should be grateful for the rise in private-sector investment, but the public-sector base is absolutely essential," Heisey noted.
One area of complementary service is training scientific personnel, which is still done at the university level.
Barbara Schaal, co-chair of the PCAST Agricultural Preparedness Working Group, noted, "Private industry has an essential role to play in agricultural research, especially when it comes to scaling up and commercializing new agricultural developments and commodities, but many of the challenges we face today, including long-term water security and the need for better integrated pest management strategies, involve public goods not easily monetized and are unlikely to be addressed by the private sector. These are the domains where the federal government can and should take the lead."
Woteki said she has been advocating for more competitive grants aimed at researchers outside the government (extramural funding). The report notes that 60% of USDA's research and development budget is devoted to intramural (within-government) researchers, compared to 30% of other science-based federal agencies.
Heisey added that certain kinds of longer-term research projects benefit from continual funding instead of being renewed, for instance, every three years.
The full PCAST report can be found at www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast_agriculture_20121207.pdf.
If U.S. public agricultural research and development (R&D) spending remains the same in nominal dollars until 2050, the annual rate of agricultural total factor productivity growth will fall to less than 1%, and U.S. agricultural output will increase 40% by 2050. Raising output beyond this level would require bringing more land, labor, capital, materials and other resources into production. Future growth in U.S. agriculture would meet U.S. needs but would make no new contributions to global demand. In a more pessimistic scenario of a one-time spending reduction in 2014, followed by no additional changes in nominal spending, U.S. production would grow less than domestic demand, implying declining exports over time. However, raising public R&D spending nearly 5% per year would increase output 80% by 2050.