A USDA Agricultural Research Service microbiologist investigates one of the many mysteries surrounding agriculture. A study has found that public investment in research will continue to be needed.

The need for increased agricultural productivity to meet the demand of a growing global population faces threats from climate change, new crop pests and diseases, animal diseases and pandemics.

New innovations will be crucial, yet U.S. public spending on agricultural research has stagnated over the last decade.

“The success of U.S. agriculture will depend on both public and private investment to respond to these challenges,” said Joe Somers, vice president of HIS Markit Agribusiness Consulting Group.

HIS Markit was commissioned by American Farm Bureau Federation and Farm Journal Foundation to analyze the need for more public investment.

“While private funding for agriculture research is beneficial, private companies primarily focus on select value opportunities in major crop and livestock categories that can generate profits, leaving other areas underexplored,” Somers said during a webinar on the findings.

“Companies also have less incentive to research areas that benefit society broadly but are difficult to capture private returns, such as from the environment, animal health, specialty crops and food-safety solutions,” he said.

Public funding is beneficial because it fills in gaps. It leads in areas where the payoff from research investment is too uncertain and too far in the future to attract private investment, he said.

“It also benefits because it provides research on minor crops that do not offer a large enough potential market to attract private investment. It also helps meet broader social, environmental, health and sustainability goals that benefit both society at large and farmers,” he said.

Public investment also complements private-sector research and holds the potential for public-private partnerships, he said.

“The public sector and the private sector need to work together to harness specialized research capacity to address high-priority issues,” he said.

The report focused on six areas where public research will be very important — crop breeding, crop protection, animal health, animal diseases, climate change and pandemics, he said.

The challenge in crop breeding is it takes years to bring a new seed variety to market, and public and private sectors need to work together, he said.

In crop protection, new product development has slowed due to the increased cost of developing and marketing new products, he said.

“With commercial viability of new technology often uncertain, publicly funded research and development can be vital to initiating work that can be commercialized by the private sector and become available to producers,” he said.

Climate change is going to take adaptive research just to sustain current productivity, he said.

“Accelerated investments in research by the public sector and private sector partnerships are greatly needed to help farmers adapt to climate change,” he said.

Private research on pandemic issues that have a very low probability of occurring or outside a company’s ability to capture a return are given low priority for funding, he said.

“Private research and development efforts in animal health tend to focus on commercially useful applications in target ventures likely to generate commercially viable, patentable products and technologies,” he said.

Public funding for basic research on animal welfare, disease resistance and reducing environmental impacts of livestock production is vitally needed, he said.

“Without U.S. public sector investment in agricultural research funding into the next several decades, there’s likely to be significant implications in key areas important to U.S. farmers and ranchers, and the U.S. competitive position may be at risk,” he said.

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