According to data on public spending on agricultural research and development collected by Dr. Phil Pardey and his INSTePP colleagues at the University of Minnesota, spending in this category by the government of China exceeded funding distributed by the U.S. federal and state governments in 2009. The country’s agricultural production gains over the decades reflects the investment made in agricultural research. According to FAO data, total corn and rice production, the main staple crops in China, increased from 74.25 million tons in 1961 to 442.93 million tons in 2016, a nearly 500 percent increase over 55 years, achieved on only a 60 percent increase in total hectares harvested of the two crops.
China’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) was established in 1957, eight years after the Chinese Communists ousted the Kuomintang government and took over the country. In 1979, the Academy established a stand-alone Graduate School, which became one of the country’s earliest graduate degree conferring institutions. The GCAAS has a long-term partnership relationship with Ohio State University and the University of Pisa in Italy.
The structure of the agricultural research system in China is very different from that of the United States. As of 2008, about 84 percent of all public funding went to scientists working at one of the more than 1,100 research institutes operated directly by the Chinese government, 592 entities at the prefectural level, 454 entities by the 34 provincial governments, and 59 institutions by the national government, administered by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture (43 under the direction of the CAAS). Only 16 percent of funding went to research conducted by academics with positions within China’s higher education system. By contrast, 73 percent of U.S. public funding for agricultural research went to land-grant universities and affiliated institutions as of 2013, and only 27 percent to laboratories operated directly by USDA research agencies such as the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
China’s research system, both for agricultural sciences and other scientific endeavors, made little progress during the political and economic upheaval between the late 1950’s and mid-1970’s, marked by the Great Leap Forward between 1958-60 and the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966 and some related activities continued until the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976. Massive infrastructure projects such as building reservoirs and irrigation channels were undertaken during the Great Leap Forward, diverting labor from farming, which led to grain production shortfalls in the short-term but contributed to improved grain yields over the long term.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard decimated the ranks of government bureaucrats at the urging of Communist Party newspapers and officials, killing some and forcing others into suicide, imprisoning thousands and exiling millions to the countryside for ‘re-education’. Not surprisingly, most agricultural research conducted at these institutions ground to a halt during this period. Work resumed at these institutions in 1976, while changes in Chinese agricultural policy gave individual farmers more incentive to seek out higher yielding crop varieties and adopt new complementary agricultural practices, such as expanded use of fertilizer and irrigation, which were advanced under the Green Revolution.
However, the level of public spending on agricultural research in China stagnated in the 1980’s and 1990’s until it took off early in this century. Total public investment in agricultural R&D doubled from 2001 to 2008, reaching 14.0 billion yuan or $4 billion (in constant PPP dollars, 100=2005).
China’s private sector has also increased its investment in agricultural research in the last few decades. From 1995 to 2006, private investment rose from an estimated 3 percent of total agricultural research expenditure to 16 percent, primarily from domestic enterprises and not multinationals, although many of the businesses involved are at least partially state-owned.
In 2013, the CAAS initiated the Agricultural Science and Technology Innovation Program, or ASTIP. The four central objectives of this 13-year program are to promote interdisciplinary research and expand research infrastructure, while building the talent pool and fostering greater international research cooperation and collaboration.
During the high level Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged US $60 billion in ‘funding support’ to African countries. In his announcement, agricultural modernization was identified as one of ten ‘priority areas’. This support will come through a variety of channels including implementing direct development projects at the village level, conducting collaborative research and exchanges, and supporting Chinese agribusiness investments. There are currently 21 groups of Chinese researchers, many of them agronomists, working in 23 countries in Africa in agricultural technology demonstration centers.
In recent years, Chinese agribusinesses have acquired major U.S. or European companies in part to gain access to improved production practices and research expertise embedded in those companies. In 2013, the WH Group acquired Smithfield Foods, a major U.S. pork integrator. In 2016, state-owned ChemChina announced its intention to purchase Syngenta, a Swiss-based agricultural chemical and biotech seed company, a deal which was completed in the spring of 2017. As I described in a blog in November 2016, China has not yet licensed GM crops other than BT cotton for production, although Chinese companies are in the process of developing GM corn and soybean seed varieties for release. The acquisition of Syngenta should help to speed that process.