One area where this is visibly starting is in the field of farming and agriculture, much of which is funded by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The US is not keeping pace with other countries in funding and supporting agricultural research, which could hurt our farming and food production abilities in the long run. This might be a bit shocking to those who think the US will always be the land of "amber waves of grain," but this is an important point to consider when thinking about public policy and economic growth. Let's briefly discuss this issue after the jump.
The farmers of the future will face many daunting challenges. The world's population is growing, and climate change is altering moisture and precipitation levels as well as growing season lengths. We need improvements in technology now more than ever in order ensure that we will have the ability to generate enough food to feed future generations.
Agricultural research isn't just about developing new fertilizers and insecticides. It also includes research on methods of farming, plant breeding, treating plant diseases, and adapting to climate change. Research on these topics can lead to the development of new agricultural technology, which can increase the crop yields and the productivity of farmers.
A recent editorial in the journal Science reports on data from the USDA Economic Research Service, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. It turns out that countries like China, India, and Brazil have dramatically stepped-up their funding to agricultural research in the hopes of increasing crop yields to provide more food for their populations. It seems to be working. The agricultural productivity has also grown in these countries. In contrast, over the last 10 years, USDA spending on research and development has dropped by 26% (in “constant dollars,” which means the number has been adjusted for inflation), while US agricultural productivity has not gone up at all over this time.
These data suggest that the US is losing its place as the world leader in agricultural research and technology. This is bad for the country in terms of its ability to deal with “agricultural challenges” like new diseases or pests in the coming years. It's also bad because new agricultural technologies and research “breakthroughs” can lead to the creation of new start-up companies, create well-paying jobs, and help the economy grow.
So what’s the solution? Not all problems can be solved solely by throwing money at them. This is a problem that requires a dramatic re-thinking of policy in both the public and private sectors, including fostering collaborations between research scientists and business people who together can help develop new ideas and research into legitimate usable technologies.
However, while money alone can't solve the problem, solving it will definitely require more money nonetheless. The US needs to step-up the funding for USDA research and development. In a country that spends a lot of money on the rest of the world, we definitely need to re-allocate some of that money to focus on sustaining and improving our ability to feed ourselves in the future.
Text © 2013 TheMadScienceBlog
All images are from the USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library
Sources and Further Reading