James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

September 16, 2009

Investing in Agricultural R&D

Filed under: Uncategorized — James @ 4:10 pm

I managed to miss it when it was initially published, but Science published an short article a couple of weeks ago titled Agricultural Research, Productivity and Food Prices in the Long Run that’s definitely worth reading.

The authors’ analysis shows that while agricultural productivity is still increasing around the world the rate of increase has slowed since the 1990s and, more ominously*, the slow down has been most pronounced in the most productive countries. The authors link this loss to reduced investment in agricultural R&D and reallocation of the remain funds away from improving productivity and more towards studying environmental impacts and alternate crop uses such as pharma-crops and biofuels.

Investment in agricultural research has been shown time and time again to have substantial benefits in the long term. It was research by people like Norman Borlaug, organizations like CIMMYT and the International Rice Research Institute, as well as publicly funded crop breeders in the US and research at for profit companies like Pioneer and DeKalb that have driven the sustained increases in yield since the 1940s. The problem is that it takes a long time for us to see the results of increases or decreases in research and crop development and, as a result, companies and governments can cut funding without immediate ill effects.

The other issue the authors point out is that the vast majority of agricultural research is funded by a small number of rich, agriculturally productive, countries. The benefits of that research spread to benefits farmers and the hungry around the world. Which means 1. The research in countries like China and the US is doubly important as it benefits the rest of the world. 2. The declines in productivity growth in countries like the US will be echoed around the world, and even if we boost our investment today, it is going to take years to counteract the effects of the recent drop off in investment. And the longer we wait to correct that inattention, the worse the damage will be. As Norman Borlaug warned when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970:

It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better…but ebb tide could soon set in, if we become complacent.

Some other interesting fact from the article:

  • Contrary to what I expected, average worldwide yields of corn and wheat per acre have grown the same amount from 1961 to 2007, 2.6 times 1961 yield. The numbers I cited in my post of wheat were for the US only.
  • The drop-off in yield increases of all major crops in the 1990s looks even more dramatic when China (a bright spot of agricultural investment and accelerating yield growth) are subtracted out. On an absolute basis, China’s investment in agriculture is massive, and even more impressive when considering their GDP is still only a quarter that of America.
  • Average global corn yield per acre has dropped off the least since the 1990s of any of the four major crops mentioned. (Corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans)

H/T to the Beekeeper for pointing out this article to me.


  1. I think the root cause of this (in the U.S. at least) is the mass emigration of citizens from farming. There are no longer millions of Americans demanding applied public sector ag scientists and extension agents. Premier ag schools like UC Davis and Cornell are increasingly distancing themselves from ag.

    Plant pathology, for one, is quickly boiling down to just molecular plant-microbe interactions and theoretical ecology. There’s just no money in applied work. It’s very difficult to cobble together an applied program with small grants from commodity boards and freelance spray trails. And even if you do, there’s no guarantee your dean won’t cut you loose for someone who publishes in Science.

    Comment by Matt — September 16, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  2. I didn’t think about that but you’re completely right. The constituency of farmers (as opposed to food consumers) has basically disappeared over the last century.

    Comment by admin — September 19, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

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