Catherine Woteki, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientist, sees two powerful trends that both connect and conflict:
· Global population and food needs are soaring, and the world will need to produce roughly as much food in the next 50 years as has been consumed since civilization began.
· U.S. public sector spending on agricultural research is flat -- going backward, actually, when inflation is factored in.
"For much of the last two decades, we've had really a stagnant level of investment," Woteki says. "In the last couple of years, we've had a decrease that's been very substantial.
"We are at a very critical time," she says.
She's not alone in that judgment.
A wide range of experts, including the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, say public spending on ag research is at worrisomely low levels.
The "nation's agricultural research enterprise is not prepared to meet the challenges that U.S. agriculture faces in the 21st century," according to the Presidential Council's December 2012 report, which concluded that the federal government needs to increase ag research investments by $700 million per year. The federal government spends roughly $4 billion a year on ag research now.
Federal budget problems could torpedo any such increase and even cut into existing spending, many in agriculture worry.
"It's a concern," says Erik Younggren, a Hallock, Minn., farmer and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
Some other developed countries also are scaling back on public sector spending on ag research, when inflation is considered, says Philip Pardey.
Pardey, a professor of applied economics and director of the International Science and Technology Practice and Policy Center, both at the University of Minnesota, has studied world agricultural research and development for 25 years.
"My sense is we're not heading for a calamity, but there is cause for concern," he says. Growing population -- the world is expected to add 2 billion people by 2050 -- is only part of it. Hundreds of millions of people globally will move into the middle class in coming years, and their food needs will grow. The combination of more people and the growing middle class is expected to increase world food needs by 70 to 100 percent by 2050.
On the production side, water scarcity and limited ability to bring new farmland into production are huge concerns, experts say.
Reasons for optimism
To be sure, there are encouraging developments in global spending on ag research.
One bright spot is private sector spending. It rose to $11 billion in 2010 from $5.6 billion in 1994 · an annual growth rate of 1.4 percent after inflation is factored in, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. The most rapid growth came in crop seed and biotechnology traits.
The United States leads the world in private sector spending on ag research, accounting for more than one-third of the world total.
But some of the money spent by U.S. companies is for ag research that will be applied outside the country, Pardey says.
Also, much of the private-sector spending is for research on food processing, not food production, he and other experts note.