Five agricultural economists published an article in the latest issue of Science on the effects of public and private R&D spending on agricultural research.
Here is the summary:
Most of the increase in global agricultural production over the past half-century has come from raising crop and livestock yields rather than through area expansion. This growth in productivity is attributed largely to investments in research and innovation (1). Since around 1990, there has been a decline in the rate of growth in yield per area harvested for several important crops (2). In parallel, the rate of growth in public spending on agricultural research and development (R&D) has also fallen, which may account for declining crop yield growth and may be contributing to rising food prices (3).
To this, I would add that a deluge of books and documentaries on food have demonized precisely those research developments responsible for yield growth. It's hard to know exactly what effect these cultural influences have had on firm and government decisions to invest in agricultural research.
However, many in the food community haven't connected the dots. Mark Bittman wrote just two days ago about hunger, saying:
It seems absurd to have to say it, but no one in this country should go hungry.
His answer for the problem was more government spending on food stamps and food banks. Yet, he has repeatedly denounced modern agricultural technologies and has called for food policies that will ultimately increase food prices.
There is the old saying that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; If you teach him how to fish, you can feed him for a lifetime. Food stamps give people fish for the day. Developments in agricultural R&D are the gifts that keep on giving.