Modernizing the agricultural sector is a key task in developing Asia, in particular for low income countries according to the “Key Indicators for the Asia and Pacific 2013” report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). To follow in the path of high-income countries in the region, agricultural research and development (R&D) investment will be necessary to bring about the technological innovation needed for this modernization. The new regional synthesis report “Benchmarking Agricultural Research Indicators across Asia–Pacific” published by ASTI and APAARI presents the most recent data available on agricultural R&D in the region, laying out a baseline by which to measure future progress.
The Asia–Pacific region has increasingly raised the profile of its contribution to global agricultural R&D. In 2008, $0.40 of every dollar spent on public agricultural R&D worldwide targeted the countries of this region. Total public agricultural R&D spending in Asia–Pacific increased by 50 percent since 1996 to $12.3 billion in 2008. Most of this growth was driven by the region’s low- and middle-income countries, whereas growth in the region’s high-income countries stagnated. In fact, growth in public agricultural R&D spending in the region’s low- and middle-income countries has outpaced growth in all other developing regions around the world since the 1980s. China and India accounted for almost all of this growth which is a reflection of the strong support of their governments to public agricultural R&D acknowledging its important role in driving agricultural growth.
Aside from increased spending, most low- and middle-income countries in the region have also made considerable progress in building human resource capacity in agricultural R&D. With a few exceptions, the number of scientists employed in most countries across the region has increased, and in all the sample countries scientists’ qualification levels have improved since the 1990s.
This development is notable given the widespread challenges that these agencies face, including attracting and maintaining a pool of well-qualified research staff, and dealing with disproportionate numbers of either aging, senior staff, or junior, inexperienced staff. Some countries with a history of political isolation (notably Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam) still have very low numbers of PhD-qualified staff, forming a significant impediment to advancing the quality of research.
Despite these positive developments, agricultural R&D spending as a share of agricultural output in Asia–Pacific is lagging behind other regions of the developing world. In 2008, of the 13 low- and middle-income countries for which detailed spending data were available, Malaysia was the only country investing more than 1 percent of its agricultural GDP in agricultural research. Even though intensity ratios do not take into account the policy and institutional environment within which agricultural research takes place or the broader size and structure of a country’s agricultural sector and economy, these low ratios are a clear sign of underinvestment in agricultural R&D.
If Asia–Pacific is to meet its agricultural, economic, and emerging challenges, including rapid population growth, climate change, environmental degradation, and food price volatility, levels of investment in agricultural R&D must increase. In addition, such investments will need to be better managed, timed, and targeted to ensure maximum impact on productivity growth and poverty reduction. The private sector, for example, is still an untapped resource in many of the region’s countries.
Simply put: Supporting policy reforms offer further potential to ensure that the benefits of agricultural R&D translates into future results.