Re-examining the reported rates of return to food and agricultural research and development

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At odds with a vast body of economic evidence reporting exceptionally high rates of return to investments in agricultural research and development (R&D), growth in public R&D spending for food and agriculture has slowed in numerous, especially rich, countries worldwide. The observed R&D spending behavior is consistent with a determination that the reported rates of return are perceived as implausible by policy makers. We examine this notion by scrutinizing 2,242 investment evaluations reported in 372 separate studies from 1958 to 2011. We find that the internal rate of return (IRR) is the predominant summary measure of investment performance used in the literature despite methodological criticisms dating back more than a half century. The reported IRRs imply rates of return that are implausibly high. We investigate the reasons for these implausibly high estimates by analytically comparing the IRR to the modified internal rate of return (MIRR). The MIRR addresses several methodological concerns with using the IRR, has the intuitive interpretation as the annual compounding interest rate paid by an investment, and is directly related to the benefit-cost ratio. To obtain more credible rate of return estimates, we then develop a novel method for recalibrating previously reported IRR estimates using the MIRR when there is limited information on an investment's stream of benefits and costs. Our recalibrated estimates of the rate of return are more modest (median of 9.8% versus 39% per year); however, they are still substantial enough to question the current scaling back of public agricultural R&D spending in many countries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1492-1504
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Journal of Agricultural Economics
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author (2014).


  • Benefit-cost ratio
  • Internal rate of return
  • Modified internal rate of return
  • R&D


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