Agricultural Research and Productivity

The USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS), together with the Farm Foundation and the Global Agricultural Productivity Initiative of Virginia Tech, hosted a workshop aimed at supporting a network of researchers who study productivity-related topics. Goals of the network include supporting ERS research on identifying the causes and effects of agricultural productivity growth as well as the quality of ERS productivity data products. See details about the Agricultural Productivity Growth: Measurement, Drivers, and Climatic Effects Workshop on the Farm Foundation website.

It is widely agreed that increased productivity, arising from innovation and changes in technology, is the main contributor to economic growth in U.S. agriculture. ERS data, research, and analyses quantify productivity improvements, the sources of improvement, and investigate the role of the public and private sectors in fostering U.S. agricultural productivity growth through research, education, infrastructure, and technological advances. Research on global agricultural productivity focuses on quantifying comparable productivity growth measures for countries and regions worldwide.

  • ERS's productivity accounts provide estimates of productivity growth for the aggregate U.S. farm sector for the period 1948–2021, and estimates of the growth and relative levels of productivity for the individual States for the period 1960–2004. According to the latest statistics (see the ERS data product, Agricultural Productivity in the U.S.), growth in farm sector output was due to productivity growth over the post-war period.
  • Though total annual use of agricultural inputs has changed little since 1948, the mix of inputs shifted, with intermediate inputs (e.g., agricultural chemicals and purchased services) use increasing and labor/land input use decreasing. The output mix has changed as well, with crop production growing faster than livestock production. See the ERS report, Agricultural Productivity Growth in the United States: Measurement, Trends, and Drivers (ERR-189, July 2015) for more information.
  • Studies have shown that public investment in agricultural research has resulted in large economic benefits with annual rates of return between 20 and 60 percent, see Economic Returns to Public Agricultural Research (EB-10, September 2007). The Agricultural Act of 2018 authorized funding for research, extension, and education—including competitive grants and capacity funding (i.e., awarded by formula) to Land Grant institutions and State agricultural experiment stations, and intramural funding for USDA research agencies, and identified high-priority research areas and new research initiatives. See Agricultural Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications and the section under Research, Extension, and Related Matters for more information.
  • ERS-compiled statistics (see the ERS data product, Agricultural and Food Research and Development Expenditures in the United States) show public and private spending on agricultural and food R&D since 1970. In inflation-adjusted dollars, public agricultural R&D spending peaked in 2002 and by 2019 had fallen by about one-third from this peak. The private sector accounts for a rising share of national spending on agricultural and food R&D, surpassing 70 percent of total public-private spending by 2013.

  • ERS research finds that growth rates in public R&D in high-income countries as a group have also slowed, see Agricultural Research Investment and Policy Reform in High-Income Countries (ERR-249, May 2018). For high-income countries as a group, public agricultural research expenditures (adjusted for inflation) grew rapidly after 1960. However, growth slowed markedly in recent decades and has now turned negative. In constant 2011 dollars, public agricultural R&D spending in these countries grew from $3.9 billion in 1960 to a peak of $18.6 billion in 2009, before declining to $17.5 billion by 2013 (the latest year with complete data). This decline in public R&D spending marked the first sustained fall in agricultural R&D investment by these countries in 50 years, and was most pronounced in the United States and Southern Europe. The United States continues to lead among high-income countries in public agricultural R&D spending, but the U.S. share of the total declined from 35 percent in 1960 to less than 25 percent by 2013. See also the May 2018 Amber Waves article, Agricultural Research in High-Income Countries Faces New Challenges as Public Funding Stalls. Also see the ERS data product, International Agricultural Productivity.
  • To estimate the likely impacts of public research and development (R&D) funding choices on productivity growth, ERS projected future productivity growth with alternative public R&D investment scenarios. This analysis found that declines in public R&D have a more pronounced effects in the longrun than in the short-term. Even if public R&D investment recovers, future productivity growth (in terms of total factor productivity) would take some time to resume due to the lag between research investment and application. See the September 2015 Amber Waves feature, U.S. Agricultural Productivity Growth: The Past, Challenges, and the Future for more information.