Rural Research: Crops and People

The amount of money spent on research into ag biotechnology has exploded over the last 30 years. But we spend pocket change in trying to understand social and community development.

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We spend a lot of money to learn how row crops can live through a drought, but darn little to learn how people and communities can survive.

That’s the gist I get from the chart above. It shows the amount public and private sources spent on ag research and development in 2006. The chart comes from a new report on research spending compiled by the always-useful Economic Research Service. 

The chart shows the descending amounts spent by public and private dollars on various topics. Most of the research is conducted on food manufacturing and crops. Less on animals, farm machinery and the environment.

Even less on nutrition, food safety and statistics.

And then, over on the far right hand of the scale, we can see that a bare amount was spent on “social and community development.” Literally, we spend billions of dollars trying to understand how crops and animals live, but only a smidgeon on how humans and their communities can grow and develop.

We understand the reasons business invests in research. The private research money is devoted to R&D that will “earn the highest possible expected private returns,” according to the economists who wrote the report.

This is a narrow band of research, however. A 2001 survey found that three-quarters of private crop breeding investments were directed at just three commodities: corn, soybeans and cotton. 

Biotechnology has boosted research spending considerably. Between 1980 and 2010, R&D spending by seed and biotech companies in the U.S. increased from $100 million a year to more than $2 billion. And, yes, that is in constant, 2010 dollars.

No such increase was noted in spending on social and community development research. 

And that may be one reason why we know a heck of a lot about how to grow corn in a drought but not so much about how to develop rural communities that thrive.

No wonder we have bountiful harvests and troubled towns.

 

 

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