Our food supply is under threat from climate extremes: Congress must act to save it

Our food supply is under threat from climate extremes: Congress must act to save it
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Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive sectors of the entire global economy, and extreme weather is taking a toll.

Just last week, crop markets were roiled by Hurricane Ida, which damaged export facilities and threatened to slow agricultural trade. Market volatility is only just one reason for concern. This year's record winter storm in Texas and the megadrought in the western U.S. are causing serious damage to crop production. Agricultural productivity over the past 60 years was 21 percent lower than it would have been without climate change — the equivalent of seven years of lost productivity growth. And this trend is only expected to worsen, with rising global temperatures projected to significantly reduce crop yields in coming decades.

High operating costs, volatile commodity prices, and stagnating yields are exerting major pressure on farmers and many are struggling to survive. Today, nearly 90 percent of American farm families require off-farm income to keep their farms afloat, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service. Further contraction in the industry and losses in productivity will ultimately threaten our access to safe, affordable food and worsen global hunger, which is already on a menacing rise.

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As climate change intensifies, researchers are working hard to help farmers adapt — developing a host of new climate-smart farming solutions, including new drought-resistant crop varieties, improved management practices to conserve water, and digital tools to optimize input efficiency.

Perhaps most importantly, we are finding that agriculture can be a powerful tool for mitigating climate change. Farms don’t have to be victims of this challenge — they can take active steps to fight against it if the U.S. makes substantial new investments to support the commoditization of carbon. We can increase carbon sequestration in soils by using natural additives such as biochar, compost, and rock dust — all while increasing crop yields. 

Agricultural research is key to fighting climate change and protecting global food supplies, but pathways to innovation are under threat. The U.S. has fallen behind competitors China and Brazil in public support for agricultural research, according to a recent report commissioned by Farm Journal Foundation and the American Farm Bureau Federation. U.S. public funding has declined in real dollars since 2003, while investments in other forms of domestic research have risen.

This lack of support means that across the U.S., many potentially groundbreaking studies are significantly underfunded or even unfunded — which can delay or stifle important discoveries. What’s more, many universities are in desperate need of infrastructure investments to upgrade laboratories and other facilities for the 21st century. According to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, 69 percent of the buildings and facilities at U.S. schools of agriculture are at the end of their useful life.

Public support for agricultural research is necessary to fill gaps left by the private sector. Often, public funding serves as a foundation for early-stage developments that can unlock significant innovations longer term. Publicly funded research can also open up access to new technologies for a broad range of farmers — including smallholders in developing countries where the impacts of climate change and hunger are most acute. In addition, private companies often focus their research investments on a few major crop markets, leaving other important areas under-explored, such as the environment, specialty crops, and food safety.

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Importantly, public funding can also leverage private-sector dollars, as the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research has shown. FFAR, a public-private model established by Congress in 2014 to fund urgent agricultural research, matches every dollar in government funding it receives with another dollar from a non-federal source, creating great returns for taxpayers.

To ensure the nation’s agricultural scientists can do their work — and that groundbreaking discoveries can reach farmers and help fight climate change ­— the federal government needs to act now.

Specifically, Congress must prioritize funding for agricultural research in budget reconciliation legislation. The budget resolution that Congress just passed lays the groundwork to make transformational, once-in-a-generation investments in these areas. For this to happen, however, members must direct a significant portion of funding toward research for climate change adaptation and mitigation, leveraging private sector resources where possible. Doing so will help reverse the long decline in public support for agricultural innovation and put the nation’s farmers on a more secure path.

Scientific research takes years to refine and develop before new discoveries are ready for the market. This is why it’s important to prioritize agricultural research funding today, to ensure that our nation’s crop and livestock producers can stay one step ahead of the climate crisis.

The clock is ticking, and every season, farmers face greater and greater challenges. By increasing support for agricultural research now, we can help ensure that the best and brightest scientific ideas make it into farmers’ hands — ultimately turning the agricultural industry into a climate change success story and creating a more food secure future for us all.

Benjamin Z. Houlton is the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology as well as global development. His research interests include global ecosystem processes, climate change solutions, and agricultural sustainability.