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Agriculture in United States losing ground in innovation

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news Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

GILFILLAN -- Funding for the basic research that makes American agriculture a world leader in innovation and production is stagnant if not in decline.

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America used to account for 21 percent of all research and development focused on agriculture in the world. Today, it is China that holds that lead position. The U.S. investment has shrunk to 14 percent, according to Dr. Brian Buhr, head of the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. Buhr was part of a panel of U of M department heads speaking at Farmfest on Thursday.

They urged more investment in research funding, as well as strengthening the partnerships between producers, private industry and education that made possible many of the innovations we now benefit by.

Buhr said that Minnesota's investment in its Agricultural Experiment Stations has remained stagnant or in decline since 1990. It is currently at about $45 million a year.

Unfortunately, private industry investment in agricultural R & D is stagnant as well, according to Buhr.

Part of the problem is complacency, he said. Companies are not making investments in long-term research due to the pressures for short-term profits.

Yet the need for long-term research has never been more important for agriculture. "Some of these issues that we see emerging are very long term issues, sort of glacier in speed,'' said Buhr. He cited climate change, resistance by pests to controls, and a growing world population and shrinking resource base to produce food as examples.

Buhr said public investment in research needs to grow. Market incentives do not often exist for private industry to make R & D investments that requires 20 or more years before returns can be realized.

A regulatory system that unnecessarily lengthens the time it takes to bring innovations to the market is a problem as well, he said.

No state has more to gain from innovation than Minnesota, according to research by the College of Applied Economics. For every $1 in public funds expended on agricultural R & D, a $50 return is realized. That compares to a $22 to $1 ratio nation-wide, according to Buhr.

Agricultural productivity grew by 1.75 percent to 2 percent annually in the 1990's due to innovations resulting from basic research undertaken 10 and 20 years earlier. Today, agriculture is seeing productivity gains slow to about .5 percent per year, Buhr pointed out.

There is a ''brain drain'' evident as well. There are declines in the numbers of students in agricultural and biology graduate programs, said Dr. Michael White, head of the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

The University speakers also noted that the challenges of putting agricultural instructors in high schools across the state are growing too. The vast majority of graduates in the College of Agriculture's educational program are lured to higher paying positions in private industry.

All of this comes as Dr. Eric Kaler, president of the University of Minnesota, announced that he wants the University to ramp up its commitment to agriculture.

"With our concentration of growers, food producers and large, multi-national corporations in the food space, I think Minnesota is equipped to become the Silicone Valley of the food industry,'' said Kaler. "And I am going to advance that idea with state leaders as we move in to the next legislative session.''

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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