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USDA examines public and private research spending

Friday 30 November 2012

The US Department of Agriculture this week published an examination into the relationship between public and private investment into agricultural research and development.


Researchers from USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) published their findings in the journal Science. The study also looked at the importance of public and private investment to the agriculture industry; their report "details on the rapid growth and changing composition of private investments in global agricultural R&D and traces the implications for agriculture."


Researchers from the USDA have looked into public and private agriculture research funding

USDA researcher Catherine Woteki commented on Thursday (29th November), "Agriculture is more dependent on scientific innovation than any other industry. This study shows the great job that private industry is doing in research, much of which was built on the genetic technology USDA scientists have been working on for decades. It's crucial that we continue supporting this kind of R&D."


The study finds that research has led to increasing crop and livestock yields, improving productivity over the past 50 years, rather than to the expansion of acreage devoted to farming. However, private sector investments were found to comprise a greater and growing share of overall R&D spending; the researchers said private spending has increased as public spending has waned or stagnated.

Report's findings


The ERS researchers said their investigation was important as, whilst estimates of publicly funded agricultural research have previously been available, and studies have established strong links between these investments and the long-term growth of the productivity of global agriculture, there has been limited examination of private sector spending on R&D.


The report looked at spending on animal genetics; animal nutrition; animal health; farm machinery; fertilisers; crop seed and biotechnology; and agricultural chemicals.


Globally, over half of all private investment in food and agricultural research and development has been devoted to food manufacturing, not toward input industries and other areas that directly increase agricultural production, the researchers found. They also said that most private research focuses on crops, often through developing farm machinery or biofuels investments; livestock-related research and crop protection chemicals have experienced less growth.


The ERS authors said, "Private spending contributed to the overall growth in R&D for agricultural in the face of slowing or stagnant public R&D resources, but addressed a narrower set of research topics and input industries than publicly funded R&D."


They also said "Public policies have a major influence on private-sector incentives to invest in agricultural research," adding that public investments in basic science and lucrative intellectual property rights "have been important drivers of the growth of private agricultural R&D."

Concern over drive and direction of R&D


However, although the USDA researchers welcome the proportional increase in agricultural research towards private spending, there are those who believe the shift is driving agriculture in an unsustainable and unaccountable direction. The fact that intellectual property has been a driver of growth and the discovery that the scope of research narrows when private investors take up slack from reduced public funding has caused some concern.


Sustainable farming expert Dr Julia Wright, deputy head of the Coventry University-based Centre for Agroecology and Food Security, said in February that government cuts to research funding introduced last year, which will affect vital areas of study including soil science, have serious implications; she demanded increased focus on sustainability in research and increased public funding to avoid driving agriculture in an unsustainable direction.  

Dr Wright suggested business would fill the vacuum left by government funding cuts to research and development, the purpose of which was previously social – feeding the population – but which would become commercial – developing a product – often working against the public interest.


She said, "The private sector is not going to fund research for the public good unless there is a product or service it can sell from it. It can also hide research results that are unfavourable to its business, as seen in the tobacco industry and as I have personally experienced. The organic and agroecological farming subsectors are not 'big business' and don't have the funds to undertake research that is in their interests."


At the same time, the Soil Association in the UK warned of the effects of the privatisation of agricultural R&D, which was accelerated in the UK when the current government game to power. Lamenting the current approach to agricultural research in the UK, the Soil Association said, "How governments invest in agricultural research and innovation plays a pivotal part in shaping what types of food we produce and consume. Given the challenges our global food system is likely to face in the coming century, it's crucial that we ensure organic and agro-ecological approaches are at the heart of innovative and progressive farming."


In a statement lambasting the UK approach to R&D, the Association added that even public funding is not immune from reflecting the dominant ideology; "The potential of organic and agro-ecological systems is still to be fully realised, due in part to under-investment in appropriate research and knowledge sharing… Most funding, including public funding, has focused on delivering 'wealth-creating products'. Organic innovation usually entails adding value through improved management techniques rather than purchasing new products, and so it provides less incentive for investment."


Dr Wright is inclined to agree; she said that research into and uptake of sustainable, equitable farming practice has been curbed by "The limited extent to which [certain agricultural] sectors really look for sustainable alternatives," and the requirement for "small paradigm shifts to entrenched conventional practices." A staunch advocate of environmentally friendly, socially responsible farming practices, Dr Wright maintains blinkered and belligerent ideologies, rather than measurable results, prevent the spread of new ideas in many regions where industrial farming methods are more established.


The organic certifiers and CAFS director both stated the need for research and policy organisations to move past the mentality of 'organic vs. conventional' and focus on knowledge transfer and developing resilient, equitable systems, developments as a result of which will benefit farmers and the communities they serve, instead of remaining in thrall to transnational companies, which serve only their shareholders.


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