To fight climate change, don't neglect agricultural R&D

To fight climate change, don't neglect agricultural R&D
© Rebecca Beitsch

With the Senate’s recent vote to advance the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal — a deal limited to “hard” infrastructure like roads, railways and bridges — advocates for climate action are shifting their sights to a budget reconciliation bill. By bypassing the filibuster, reconciliation would provide Democrats with the opportunity to accomplish many of the Biden administration’s more ambitious and partisan priorities. In all the excitement, however, agricultural research and development — a crucial climate mitigation strategy — is at risk of being overlooked.

Agricultural research and development may not be as flashy as other climate policy proposals, such as the establishment of a clean electricity standard or the Civilian Climate Corps, but it has a proven environmental track record, clear economic co-benefits and wide appeal. Agricultural innovations have shrunk agriculture’s environmental footprint by enabling farmers to produce more food on less land, with fewer inputs and greenhouse gas emissions. Since the 1960s, innovation-driven productivity advances have enabled farmers to reduce land use by 9 percent and cut the carbon footprint per pound of milk and chicken by over 50 percent

Unfortunately for the climate (and for agricultural producers, who benefit from productivity-enhancing and input-saving innovations), total public spending on agricultural research and development has stagnated, and much of our nation’s agricultural research infrastructure is in disrepair. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) facilities have a $1 billion maintenance backlog; National Institutes of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) research facilities at colleges and universities are burdened by $11.5 billion in deferred maintenance; nearly 70 percent of facilities at schools of agriculture are at the end of their useful life, and public spending on agricultural R&D fell by almost 30 percent between 2002 and 2015.

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Private firms are unlikely to fill this funding gap — USDA data reveals the private sector conducts very little agricultural research related to natural resources and the environment — since this environmentally and socially beneficial research is often pre-competitive, has a long payback period, or doesn’t result in products that can be commercialized. 

A renewed federal commitment to agricultural research is, therefore, necessary to unlock the environmental potential of innovations like more heat- and drought-tolerant crop varieties, methane-reducing livestock feeds and alternative proteins. According to a recent analysis from researchers at Purdue University and The Breakthrough Institute, where I work as an analyst, boosting U.S. agricultural research spending by nearly $40 billion over 10 years could prevent nearly 58 million acres of cropland conversion and around 154 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent of emissions annually by 2050.

To maximize the bang-per-buck of additional federal research funding, Congress will also have to address research infrastructure challenges. Conducting cutting-edge research requires modern facilities with climate-controlled environments, state-of-the-art equipment and sensor technologies. Currently, deferred maintenance, space limitations and equipment shortages threaten to cause delays, jeopardize research quality, and reduce facilities’ research capacity. A sincere commitment to climate action in the reconciliation bill should, therefore, include money for agricultural research infrastructure improvements.

Because of the sheer scale of facilities’ deferred maintenance, as well as the multitude of other worthy policy priorities, these investments will have to be made strategically. Congress can enhance the environmental and social benefits of agricultural research and infrastructure spending by directing USDA to develop a revitalization plan that prioritizes facilities conducting the most critical research and considers options to restructure the public research ecosystem to reduce redundancies and facilitate collaboration. 

USDA has undertaken similar endeavors in the past — in 2012 the agency developed an ARS Capital Investment Strategy report, which used a data- and criteria-based process to identify 21 facilities for recapitalization over the following decade. Now, nearly a decade later, a budget reconciliation bill would present an ideal opportunity to direct USDA to develop a new 10-year infrastructure revitalization plan that reflects the urgency of the climate crisis.

Through budget reconciliation, Democrats are poised to make unprecedented investments in climate mitigation. Given the magnitude of the climate crisis, Congress should invest in a wide range of mitigation strategies, including embracing and expanding public agricultural research — which has reliably delivered environmental benefits for decades — and the infrastructure agricultural researchers depend on.

Caroline Grunewald is a food and agriculture analyst with The Breakthrough Institute.