The barley research community has long-understood barley to be a public sector crop that requires public sector investment to ensure its viability. Unlike other crops that receive significant investment by private industry including corn, soybeans, and cotton, many minor (by acreage) crops do not receive the same high level investment. As a recent report released by the USDA Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS) suggests, this funding divergence is primarily driven by whether or not biotechnology is applied to the crop to develop novel traits.
The findings from USDA-ERS’s report entitled “Concentration and Competition in U.S. Agribusiness” quantifies increased seed costs of genetically modified (GM) crop seed (463% increase) vs. non-GM crop seed (270% increase) relative to commodity price inflation of 56% over the same period. At face value, those numbers certainly point to the benefit of lower input costs for non-GM crops, like barley. However, those increased costs directly impact two mutually derived benefits.
From 1990 (introduction of GM crop varieties) to 2014, total spending on research and development from top seed companies increased from $2 to $7 billion, which suggests the increased revenue and profit potential of novel crop traits inspired these firms to reinvest into new technologies.
Despite increased seed costs of GM crop varieties, their adoption yielded greater farm profitability over continued use of non-GM varieties. This led to a competitive advantage for GM crops (primarily corn and soybeans) when farmers made decisions on what to plant each year.
These two conclusions certainly do not bode well for barley and other non-GM crops, a fact unlikely to change due to lower acreages leading to lower potential profitability from private investment. This does, however, highlight the critical need for public investment in barley research and development. Will a continued reliance on public investment be enough to keep barley in a farmer’s rotation though? Barley acreage over the past thirty years has been on a steady decline, driven by multiple factors, including greater yield efficiency in the barley produced and less production utilized for livestock feed. Nonetheless, in order for a crop to stay competitive, it must be profitable.
The American Malting Barley Association (AMBA), a trade organization representing end users of malting barley including maltsters, brewers, and distillers, exists to ensure a high quality and resilient supply of barley in the U.S. Continuous barley improvement is the primary driver of AMBA’s work - seeking to bring new crop varieties to farmers and industry that are more productive and more resilient to emerging pests and environmental stressors.
In order to keep barley competitive in the field, however, exploring advances in breeding technologies will be vitally important. And because very little R&D investment is made into barley by private seed companies, AMBA will continue to leverage investment through their members to encourage and support public sector research at our federal and state institutions.