This year Congress is expected to pass a piece of legislation that deeply affects the lives of all Americans and determines the strategic positioning of the United States in global agriculture for the next five years. The Farm Bill influences the food we eat, how we grow it, and the lives of the farmers who do so. Funding for agricultural research and development (R&D) only makes up a tiny sliver of the Farm Bill’s budget—about 0.2 percent in the 2014 bill—but it has profound consequences for U.S. agricultural competitiveness and global food security. The United States has historically been at the forefront of agricultural science and innovation, but our leadership is slipping: China has been outspending us 2 to 1 on agricultural research since 2013.

Q1: What is the Farm Bill, and what does it have to do with agricultural research and development?

A1: The first Farm Bill was dominated by farm support programs meant to ease the blow of the Great Depression. Since then it has evolved into an enormous omnibus bill that addresses a wide range of issues, spanning nutrition assistance, rural development, international food aid, and more. The legislation falls under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and sparks strong opinions from diverse interest groups ranging from maritime unions to commodity associations.

The 2014 Farm Bill authorized a projected $489 billion in mandatory federal spending between 2014 and 2018. Just four of the bill’s 12 titles—nutrition, crop insurance, conservation, and farm commodity support—make up 99 percent of its mandatory authorizations. Funded at over $390 billion, nutrition programming alone accounts for roughly 80 percent of the budget, with the bulk of this funding earmarked for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps.

Source: USDA Economic Research Service, “Projected Spending Under the 2014 Farm Bill,”

In comparison, the portion of the bill that supports agricultural research and extension received $800 million over five years. Despite this small share, these funds determine priorities for agricultural science related to crop diseases and pests, farm animal health, natural resource management, food safety, nutrition, and countless other areas critical to U.S. agricultural and food systems.

The Farm Bill is the primary source of federal funding for agricultural science. With these resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds the work of its three in-house research agencies—the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, and the National Agricultural Statistics Service—as well as its extramural research wing, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds research through land-grant universities, state agricultural experiment stations, and other institutions at the state and local levels. The 2014 Farm Bill also authorized $200 million to establish the nonprofit Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which matches federal funding with private-sector donations to award grants for public-private collaborative research partnerships.

Q2: What are the trends in U.S. public investment in agricultural R&D that impact our leadership position?

A2: Despite a 40 percent return on investment, growth in U.S. public-sector funding for agricultural R&D slowed in the early 1980s, flatlined in the 1990s, and turned negative as of 2011. Inflation-adjusted public investments in agricultural R&D fell by 20 percent between 2008 and 2013.

These trends are troubling on their own but even more so in light of the global context. As the United States steadily chipped away at agricultural research funding, rapidly growing economies—like China, India, and Brazil—did the opposite. As a result of these inverse patterns, the U.S. share of global public agricultural R&D investments fell by nearly half between 1960 and 2011, from 20 percent to 11 percent. Meanwhile, China ramped up spending almost eightfold between 1990 and 2013, overtaking the United States as the biggest investor in public agricultural R&D in 2008.

U.S. federal funding for agricultural science has also deteriorated relative to other research areas. In 2012, the National Institutes of Health (one of the foremost federal biomedical research centers in the world) outspent USDA nearly 15 to 1 on research and development. There is no question that human health is a high priority for R&D dollars, but ensuring an adequate, healthy, and safe food supply plays a critical part in improving health outcomes.

Q3: Why is public agricultural R&D important for U.S. agriculture?

A3: American agriculture is competitive because it is productive. U.S. agricultural output grew by a staggering 268 percent from 1949 to 2007. Expanded agricultural production was due almost entirely to productivity growth, a metric for how efficiently inputs (land, labor, and other resources) are turned into outputs (crop and livestock yields), rather than an expansion of our agricultural footprint. R&D, paired with systems that bring discoveries from the laboratory to the field, is the principal driver of productivity growth. American farmers have benefited from a flood of breakthrough technologies and innovations—like high-yielding, drought-tolerant seeds and more efficient equipment—that have transformed farming as we know it. They have experienced first-hand how investments in public R&D can allow them to maintain their competitive edge both at home and abroad. Expanded output also suppresses consumer food prices, with particular benefits for low-income households, who typically spend a greater share of their income on food.

U.S. annual agricultural productivity growth peaked at a rate of about 2 percent in the mid-1980s and has been slowing ever since. This is especially concerning in the face of global agriculture’s myriad new challenges: climate change, unfamiliar pests and diseases, and rising production costs, to name a few. Given such threats, U.S. agriculture will require “maintenance research” just to sustain current levels of productivity, let alone boost yields. With continued public-sector R&D divestment, slumping productivity growth is likely to persist.

Stagnant productivity has negative implications beyond our domestic food supply. In the long term, losing ground on investments in agricultural R&D to other countries means losing our competitive edge to them, too. Failing to invest in the next generation of scientists would hamstring our scientific workforce well into the future, further diminishing our long-run leadership in global agricultural research. America’s competitive advantage is rooted in being on the cutting edge of scientific discovery.

Q4: What are the global implications of U.S. agricultural R&D?

A4: The United States has long been a leader in advancing the frontier of agricultural science. American scientists—often in partnership with international research institutions like CGIAR—tackle issues relevant to both domestic and global agriculture. Transformative techniques and innovations born of this research flow from the United States to the rest of the world. In poor countries that cannot afford to undertake their own agricultural research, these discoveries help farmers do more with less.

When U.S. agricultural scientists partner internationally, it often produces dual wins for both domestic and global stakeholders. For example, in the last decade, USDA-funded scientists worked in collaboration with international researchers to address a virulent wheat stem rust, Ug99, which wrought havoc on wheat yields across Africa and Asia. Eighty percent of the global wheat supply was vulnerable to Ug99, including U.S. production, posing a potentially devastating threat to global food security (wheat accounts for 20 percent of calories consumed globally). But by using CGIAR breeding lines, scientists stopped the spread of the disease. By partnering with scientists internationally to address global challenges like wheat rust, the United States safeguards domestic agriculture against future threats, while simultaneously bolstering resilience and productivity around the world.

Consumption growth coupled with dietary changes driven by increased incomes will boost demand for agricultural products from 60 percent to over 110 percent in the coming decades. Agricultural productivity growth is key to satisfying this rising demand, but it must be harnessed in a sustainable manner to safeguard the environment. However, productivity growth is not on course to meet forecasted demands and is especially lagging in developing countries, where population and consumption growth is concentrated. Increased investments in agricultural R&D and knowledge transfer systems will be essential to ensure food security in the developing world.

The Farm Bill could help to chart a more food secure future by fostering international research collaboration that supports the strategic interests of both the United States and our partners. For example, Section 1402 of the Farm Bill, which covers agricultural research, extension, and education, could be enhanced by adding language that incentivizes international scientific collaboration through USDA. The Lugar Center agrees. The first point in its Principles for Public Investments in Agriculture Sciences, published this week, states “both domestic and international research need to work together on common goals.”

Q5: Why can’t the private sector just do it?

A5: In the latter half of the twentieth century, the private sector contributed about half of all R&D spending in agriculture in the United States. By 2013, after a decade of investment growth, the private sector accounted for 70 percent of total U.S. agricultural R&D spending. The United States is not alone in this private-sector surge: China now outspends us on private agricultural R&D as well.

While this boom in private spending more than offsets the decline in public research funding, it is not a perfect substitute. Private-sector investments generally target ventures likely to generate commercially viable, patentable products and technologies, like fertilizers or veterinary pharmaceuticals. In comparison, publicly funded agricultural R&D tackles fundamental research that is often longer term and higher risk but with the potential for significantly higher paybacks. The benefits stemming from this type of basic research are more difficult—if not impossible—to capture and market, which disincentivizes private investment. U.S. public agricultural R&D addresses this market failure by producing the foundational science upon which the private sector can build.

Public-sector investments in agricultural research and development are essential to U.S. business and trade, our natural environment, and the ability of lower-income people to feed themselves at home and around the world.

(Check out the video produced by the CSIS Global Food Security Project to hear from experts about the importance of U.S. agricultural R&D and the next Farm Bill.)

Kimberly Flowers is director of the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kelsey Bachenberg was a junior researcher with the CSIS Global Food Security Project.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Kimberly Flowers
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Humanitarian Agenda and Global Food Security Program

Kelsey Bachenberg