Feed the Billions? Invest in Agricultural Research

Food demand is on the rise. The drivers of accelerating food consumption include growth in the world population, which the UN expects will reach 9 billion by 2050, from 7 billion now. According to some estimates, 90 percent of this increase in population will take place in developing countries.

However, if the world’s rising population is to count on continued access to food at reasonable prices, governments and policymakers across the world must address fundamental issues relating to agricultural production. More than ever before, increasing food output now depends on increasing productivity, rather than on expanding the land under cultivation.

This demand for food continues to accelerate, particularly in high-growth economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and also some African countries. At the same time, food production is coming under pressure owing to limitations on resources, including water, land and other environmental considerations. In response to this, these high-growth economies have committed to wide-ranging programmes and policies to increase agricultural output. These include measures to promote food productivity such as minimum tillage farming and crop modification; investments in agricultural research and in structures to promote innovation among smallholders; and rural lending programmes and agricultural insurance cover.

As part of these commitments, nations all over world are investing heavily in agricultural research. In China, for example, average annual growth in public agricultural research and development expenditure increased in real terms to more than 20 percent in 2010-11, from 16 percent in 2000-09. Furthermore, some governments are investing in rural structures to ensure that innovations reach farmers. In India, for example, there are Krishi Vigyan Kendra farm science centres in each district, which improve the interface between technology and the extension agencies that promote agricultural practices through farmer education.

Agricultural Research: Adding Value

Agricultural research has been one of the keys to increasing food production over the past half century at a rate that has outstripped rapid increases in population. As per person availability of arable land, water and other resources continues to shrink, further commitment and advances in research become critical to ensure that future generations will be better fed, clothed and housed than they are today.

Agricultural research has been a major factor in increasing global food production by 80 percent since the mid-1960s, with more than half of the increase in developing countries. Research advances have also contributed to food security by developing improved breeds and varieties of livestock, fish and trees to enhance livestock production, aquaculture, agro-forestry and mixed farming systems. This has had a number of major effects on developing economies, such as:

• Increased and more stable food supplies;
• Declining national and international cereal prices;
• Less reliance on food aid;
• Increased employment and income through agriculture-led economic growth; and
• Decreased incidence of poverty.

On the other hand, positive effects on the environment have included reduction in the use of marginal land for agriculture. Agricultural research has also reduced the need for fertilisers and pesticides as a result of integrated plant nutrition and integrated pest management.

Research: The Agenda for Future

In future, agricultural research will face a tough challenge. It has to meet the rising demand for food at marginal cost. It has to provide a catalyst for the evolution of economies dependent on agriculture so that they can provide employment and income for the farmers and rural poor. And these goals must be achieved in a way that protects and enhances the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. In addition, more research is needed to improve the sustainability of forest resources. The major thrusts for future agricultural research are:

Biotechnology: Biotechnology can produce plants that use water more efficiently, grow in highly adverse conditions, resist pests and diseases, and utilise fewer inputs. These products have enormous potential to contribute to sustainable agricultural production. However, these products must be evolved with great attention to safety issues.

Natural Resource Management: Increased research is needed on the management of natural resources, on which agriculture depends - soil, water, plants and animals. More efficient management strategies are needed for both soil and water. Research is required to improve irrigation and to improve technologies for the protection and conservation of both soil and water. In addition, the research agenda must address issues of appropriate technologies for the conservation, maintenance and utilisation of the diversity of biological resources needed on the farm.

Policy Analysis: Policy research is desperately needed in most of the countries where decisions are too often guided by inadequate documentation and insufficient knowledge. Subjects that require investigation include inappropriate price policies that encourage inefficient use of inputs and that encourage unsustainable cropping systems. Policy research must also include a thorough understanding of decisions taken at the household level.

Investment in Agricultural Research

Investment in agricultural research grew at a rapid pace during the 1960s and 1970s, more slowly in the 1980s and has been stagnant during the 1990s. In developing countries, the proportion of the total agricultural gross domestic product spent on research is about 0.5 percent, compared to 2-4 percent in developed countries.

According to experts, research investment must be increased now to meet the growing demand for food without price increases or deterioration of the agricultural resource base. To improve food security in a sustainable manner, countries, mainly developing, needs to invest at least one percent of their agricultural output in research over the short-term and two percent over the long-term. The reward for transforming and investing further in agricultural research will be a thriving agricultural sector, a necessary condition for economic growth, providing food, income and employment to the poor, and improving resource conservation and environmental protection.

Agriculture in India: Research Oriented

Research and development (R&D) forms the basis of future competitiveness of any country, as it is critical for innovation, and India is no exception. India has one of the largest and institutionally complex agricultural research systems in the world. Its effective functioning in close association with education and extension systems has significantly contributed to the rapid growth of agricultural production. The main sources of agricultural productivity growth in India were public agricultural research and extension; expansion of irrigated area and rural infrastructure and improvement in human capital.

The research ecosystem in India presents a significant opportunity for multinational corporations across the globe on the back of its highly talented engineers at competitive costs. The setting up of an R&D base by an increasing number of MNCs is a testimony to this fact. These R&D establishments either serve the local market or help the parent company deliver new generation of products faster to the global market.

Investment in agricultural research in India is channelled through ICAR, the apex organisation, which allocates resources for agricultural research, education, and frontline extension through a vast network of research institutes and SAUs. As a result of ICAR’s continuous support to agricultural research and extension, and sustained efforts of the scientific community, a large number of improved technologies have been developed, contributing significantly in achieving growth in production.

The Government of India has allocated a significant proportion of its resources to agricultural research and education, resulting in an extensive network of institutions in the country. This was made possible through committed and continued political support to agricultural research, and the ability of research managers to visualise research challenges and evolve appropriate institutional responses to them. This research system is now entering a new phase; it is diversifying and evolving as a mature national agricultural research system, which should be capable of addressing new and complex research challenges. However, the system has to address issues of sustainability, environment, trade and balanced regional development, besides maintaining food security and alleviating poverty.

India is also set to witness high growth in its agriculture sector with the government investing huge sums for setting up research centres specifically dedicated for R&D in these fields. The Government has taken several steps to promote the R&D sector in India. In the Union Budget 2014-15, it established two more Agricultural Research Institutes of excellence in Assam and Jharkhand with an initial sum of `100 crore ($16.07 million).

Investment in R&D and science-based technologies would greatly benefit India, which has 14 agri-climatic zones and potentially wide range of agri produce. Private investment into agriculture R&D must be encouraged through incentives such as tax breaks and availability of land and infrastructure. Finally, trade-led agricultural development must be considered. While self-sufficiency has been the primary objective for the agriculture policy, export of agri-produce to other markets must be explored.

As the Indian economy expands, better productivity through technology infusion and introduction of global best practices will ensure better quality and prices for consumers. Also, Indian agriculture will be able to meet to the changing needs of today’s consumer and this will give a major fillip to farmers to diversify to high value cash crops. But most importantly, the true winner will be the farmer, in particular the small and marginal farmer, who will be able to improve his income through better productivity and be an equal partner in India’s growth.


Investment in agricultural research must be accelerated if developing countries are to assure future food security for their citizens at reasonable prices and without irreversible degradation of the natural resource base. Accelerated investment in agricultural research is particularly important and urgent for developing countries, partly because these countries will not achieve reasonable economic growth, poverty alleviation, and improvements in food security without productivity increases in agriculture.


The Economist