Taking Advantage of a Good Thing

Agricultural research is a wise investment

People like to get the most for their money. Just about everybody is concerned about how tax money is spent.

Dana Hoag, Colorado State University agriculture and resource economics professor, sees this as an important question: Is agricultural research a good investment? It's a fair question, since taxpayers pay for most agricultural research at universities and government departments.

Hoag found that agricultural research is one of the best investments around. It's earned a 30 to 90 percent return each year for more than 50 years. In fact, American farmers produce two-and-a-half times more per dollar spent on food production than they did 50 years ago because of research discoveries. And Americans get food at a bargain price, compared to other countries. They spend just 11 percent of their income on food, leaving almost 90 percent of their money for enriching their lives through art, environment, safety, education, and more.

There are two types of research: applied and basic. Applied research has a specific outcome in mind, such as how a specific disease can be cured. Basic research provides answers to general riddles, such as how to map DNA.

"Both types of research are important, but you can't have one without the other," said Hoag. "Basic research gave us the ability to understand DNA. That's critical. With an understanding of DNA, applied research gives it boundless uses – overturning wrongful death convictions, breeding better animals, curing illnesses."

So who should be paying for this information – taxpayers or private companies that financially benefit from products based on a research discovery? Both, says Hoag.

"A private company has to be able to capture the benefit of research and make a profit," said Hoag. "If a discovery benefits everyone, such as the map for DNA, it's hard to capture that general information and make it into something profitable without applied research. You can't easily turn mapping DNA into a marketable product, but you can turn the specifics of that information into thousands of products. If the government and universities don't do basic research, chances are basic discoveries by private companies won't be attempted or shared to benefit everyone because of their pressure for profit."

Universities, however, are spending less money on basic research, too, because of pressure to produce applied results. "We're giving basic research less and less attention, but it's proven to be more beneficial than anything out there," said Hoag. "The returns of basic research are almost twice as high as applied research."

It's all about perspective, says Hoag. One reason he believes that public funding for basic research is declining is because our society takes basic comforts – such as an abundant, affordable, high-quality food supply – for granted.

"We wouldn't be as concerned about things like the environment or social justice if we didn't have enough to eat," he said. "Our success allows people to take us for granted. We're so good at providing food, people don't realize the value of it. But there is more and more strain on farmers and ranchers to produce more and more food with less money, land, water, and support. Ask yourself, what are the benefits of cheap, high-quality food because agriculture is so successful?"

Farmers and ranchers are more productive than ever because research gives them better seeds, better fertilizer, better equipment. And they produce more with less fertilizer, labor, and water, which also benefits the environment.

"Had we not done all of the past research, could we feed all of the people we have now?" asked Hoag. "Imagine all of the extra acres we'd have to plow to provide for people if we hadn't learned to be more efficient."

"Farmers and ranchers should be proud of their accomplishments, and society should know that it's making a good investment," said Hoag.