If you want your daily bread, give us this day more money
Less government spending on agricultural research means less food on the table for the rest of us
Declining government funding for agricultural research means more people could go hungry, economists have warned.
In research evaluating the success of a programme that develops new wheat cultivars, they said every dollar spent between 1992 and 2015 generated a return of $5.10.
The agricultural economists who published their work on Monday in the journal PLOS One said the genetic improvements achieved at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Small Grain Institute had not yet plateaued.
“Further yield increases could be expected from additional research,” they said.
But government funding, which provides more than two-thirds of the council’s income, shrank by more than 8% between 2014 and 2016.
“With evidence available to support the claim that investment in agricultural research and development pays for itself, it is counter-intuitive that public funding for agricultural research is decreasing,” said Lawton Nalley of the University of Arkansas in the US.
Nalley and colleagues from the US and the ARC said wheat was second only to maize as a staple food for most people in semi-rural and urban areas.
“Increasing yields per hectare could play a major role in breaking the dependency on imported wheat and helping to alleviate food insecurity by lowering domestic prices,” they said.
South Africans eat 61kg of wheat a year, on average, and the scientists calculated that yield improvements directly related to the ARC breeding programme were feeding 250,000 people.
They were critical of strict quality standards implemented by the industry since the wheat market was deregulated in 1997.
“Wheat yields could have increased by [up to] 19% if the focus of SA wheat breeders shifted towards yield gains instead of ... strict quality standards,” they said. “These standards encourage millers to import lower quality wheat from abroad.
“The area sown to publicly bred wheat varieties is diminishing as the number of privately bred, often more expensive, varieties released increases.
“Unlike most high-income countries, SA has many small and impoverished producers. Given the reluctance of the private breeding sector to address the needs of marginal farmers, the public sector needs to play an active role in research and development.”
Public breeding programmes must continue if SA was to decrease the food insecurity experienced by more than 20% of the population and “maintain the genetic enhancements that ... benefit low-income consumers”.