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China Overtakes U.S. as Top Government Funder of Ag Research

The world’s largest farm exporter, the U.S., is also a global leader in agricultural innovation. Consider GMO crops grown on nearly half of U.S. cropland and on 440 million acres in more than two dozen nations. 

U.S. preeminence overshadows a startling change: China leads the U.S. by a large margin in government funding of food and ag research and development.

China began pouring money into agricultural R&D at the same time that U.S. funding from federal and state sources stagnated and, about a decade ago, began to decline. 

According to three USDA economists, China surpassed the U.S. in public funding in 2009 and had a 2-to-1 advantage in 2013. They say reduced U.S. spending “may have negative implications for agricultural productivity” when dealing with new pests and diseases and with climate change.

“The effects of a decline in public agricultural R&D are likely to become more pronounced over time if the pace of fundamental advances in agricultural sciences slows,” say economists Matthew Clancy, Keith Fuglie, and Paul Heisey in a USDA magazine. “Slippage of U.S. funding in agricultural R&D also carries implications for U.S. engagement with the global research community.”

Like the U.S., China is an agricultural power and also the number one customer for U.S. farm exports. Its increased support for domestic R&D comes at the same time U.S. exporters have complained of difficulty in getting China to approve new GMO strains, and the Trump administration has threatened stiff tariffs on Chinese products. State-owned ChemChina has struck a deal to buy Swiss-based Syngenta, a leading seed and ag chemical company.

Of course, the U.S. remains a powerhouse of research. It is still the leader in agricultural science publications and in citations – an indication of high-value research – in addition to agricultural patents. 

Agriculture wasn’t alone in seeing smaller federal funding for R&D. In the past decade, R&D funding is down government-wide, say Clancy, Fuglie, and Heisey.

The retrenchment ended a long era in which the U.S. public sector was “the largest performer in agricultural R&D worldwide.”

Meanwhile, private-sector R&D has zoomed, partly because of the immense development costs – and potential profits – from GMOs. Now, federal and state funding provide a quarter of total U.S. funding on agricultural R&D vs. its longtime share of 50%.

“In simple dollar terms, the decline in public-sector funding has been more than offset by a rise in private research spending. Stronger intellectual property rights and access to new markets are likely to continue bolstering private-sector R&D,” say Clancy, Fuglie, and Heisey. Like many observers, they say public and private researchers pursue different goals, so private spending is not a substitute for public support.

Ag research perennially gets low priority in the federal budget despite claiming a 20-to-1 return on investment. Farm-state lawmakers tried a different tactic by creating the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in 2014 with a $200 million endowment that must be matched by nonfederal funds for use in research. The premise was that public-private partnerships would generate investment for cutting-edge research.

The FFAR awarded its first grants to nine researchers from upstate New York to Oakland, California, last November. With the Gates Foundation, it sponsors the $100,000 National Academy of Sciences Prize in Food and Agriculture to recognize stellar research by a mid-career scientist. 

The initial winner, announced in January, was Edward Buckler, an ARS researcher and adjunct professor at Cornell. Buckler has worked on drought tolerance and disease resistance in crops, and he also helped to develop a corn variety with 15 times more vitamin A than conventional strains.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.


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