Agricultural innovation is a win for farmers and the climate

 
Congress will soon set 2019 spending levels for the Department of Agriculture (USDA), shortly after passing a farm bill. For decades, research and development (R&D) has been the ugly stepchild of federal agricultural policy. Overshadowed by the political might of crop subsidies and SNAP, public investment in agricultural innovation is lower today than it was 30 years ago when accounting for inflation.

Yet, public R&D has long been key to making the U.S. farm sector more productive and competitive internationally. Each dollar spent on agricultural research is estimated to generate at least $10 in value to society by driving fundamental scientific advances that benefit farmers and consumers, such as the development of now-widely grown varieties of wheat. With falling farm incomes, growing trade restrictions and major producers like China and Brazil stepping up their research programs, investing in R&D will remain key to ensuring American farmers stay in business and thrive.

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While Congress should increase funding for agricultural research programs and agencies, the justification for doing so goes beyond the health of the farm economy.

The environmental benefits of increasing R&D are being increasingly recognized, especially in mitigating climate change. Advances in crop breeding, farm equipment and other agricultural areas have helped farmers grow more food with less land and fertilizer, and thus fewer greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, while American farmers and ranchers produce about 26 percent more crops and livestock today than in 1990, emissions have grown far slower — by 15 percent.

But the climate benefits go beyond decreasing the carbon intensity of existing U.S. agriculture. Greater productivity means American farmers can capture a larger share of the world market, shifting some global production to the U.S. where greenhouse gas emissions are lower. U.S. beef production, for example, generates about half the emissions of the global average, uses far less land and doesn’t lead to the type of deforestation seen from livestock production in countries such as Brazil or Indonesia.

Future R&D would further improve U.S. productivity and generate climate benefits. New research from Purdue University found that increasing public research spending just by a small percentage annually would reduce the amount of natural land in the U.S. and abroad converted to agriculture by over 10 million acres. Considering the land savings and other improvements, USDA has estimated that future investments in R&D would reduce greenhouse emissions at a cost of about $25 per-ton per-year.

At the same time, boosting U.S. agricultural productivity is not a zero-sum game for other countries. It reduces global food prices, improving the nutrition and health of millions of urban poor. In addition, American agricultural researchers don’t work alone — they often partner with international researchers on global initiatives such as stopping the spread of a wheat disease that threatened production across Africa and Asia.

Given R&D’s climate as well as economic benefits, a growing coalition of environmentalists and producers have been advocating for Congress to dramatically increase spending over the coming years. Over 60 groups recently called for Congress to start doubling research funding in the next 5 years.

Congress can work toward this goal by carrying over the positive momentum they gained through the farm bill to the upcoming appropriations bill. The farm bill is just waiting for the president's signature. 
 
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The recently passed farm bill authorizes Congress to appropriate up to $700 million for Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), USDA’s flagship competitive grants program. Yet, AFRI is receiving less than 60 percent this amount today. By providing the full authorized amount to AFRI, or substantially boosting funding levels across the board for USDA research agencies, Congress can put us on a path toward doubling agricultural funding.

While Democrats and Republicans are at loggerheads over most areas of environmental policy, funding agricultural research — benefiting consumers, the farm economy, and the climate — could offer a welcome opportunity for bipartisanship.  

Dan Blaustein-Rejto is senior food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank.