While many countries grapple with policy responses to rising food prices and climate-related production problems, China has clearly staked out its position on the role of research and development (R&D) in confronting agricultural challenges. Total public investment in agricultural R&D in China doubled from 2001 to 2008, according to a new country note published by the Agricultural Science & Technology Indicators (ASTI) initiative. This investment has greatly outpaced Brazil and India, and is rapidly approaching the level of the United States. The government’s recently released 2012 Number 1 document indicates that agricultural technology remains high on the policy agenda. Private spending on agricultural R&D grew at an even faster rate, reaching 16 percent of total investment in 2006.
The renewed emphasis on agricultural R&D since 2000 comes on the heels of three decades of reform of the country’s agricultural science and technology system, which is the world’s largest and most decentralized. It also reflects pressure to increase farm production to provide a reliable supply of grains, vegetables, and meat for China’s increasingly affluent population.
To raise the efficiency of the R&D system, China has strengthened its patent system and introduced commercialization and competition to diversify agricultural research funding sources. These reforms have attracted more private-sector participation in technology development. Agricultural researcher qualifications and productivity have also improved since the turn of the millennium. A greater share of scientists and engineers now hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Higher output of government researchers and agencies has contributed to rising numbers of patents and publications as well.
Despite the progress achieved, problems remain in China’s agricultural R&D system, and new challenges have emerged. China has some 43,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) researchers and more than 1,000 public agricultural research agencies at the national, provincial, and prefectural levels. The resulting high level of decentralization limits coordination and has led to funding inefficiencies and duplication of research effort. In addition, investment in basic research is still very low. Most patents awarded to scientists and agencies are for the adaptation of technology, rather than for new inventions. Finally, in China, as elsewhere, it has proven difficult to strike an appropriate balance between market-oriented research and research that meets specific developmental needs.