Beyond Carbon Farming Q&A

Thank you to everyone who was able to join our event — and especially to our wonderful panelists for their time and expertise. As promised, below are a few are answers to a few of your questions that we weren't able to get to in time.

Q: I am an ag-tech entrepreneur, who, using my patented CRBBP Process, plants, and the multi-tasks special bio-crops to cost-effectively combat Climate Change, by extracting nearly 4 times the amount of CO2 per acre than an equal acreage of trees. The resulting biomass is then converted into cost-advantaged bio-products.

Therefore, would you also support research to maximize the potential for agriculture to extract large amounts of atmospheric CO 2 and support a growing bio-economy? (Joseph J.)

A: As IPCC models show, to reach net-zero emissions, the US and world will need to remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere using trees, agriculture, engineered systems such as Direct Air Capture, and other technologies. Research that lets farmers and ranchers increase carbon sequestration without additional cost (or while improving profitability) is important and could have a large impact. For example, the Salk Institute and several universities are developing crops with larger, more durable root systems that store more carbon. However, we must also ensure adequate R&D funding for technologies like DAC, which — unlike agricultural sequestration — can ensure it is stored for long periods of time with minimal risk of being released. (Dan)

Q: Per Joseph J, private investment in ag innovation companies jumped over 60% in last year and is now over $15B last year, and all signs point to continued growth. This is a huge change. Have you thought at all about how government funded R&D should shift to best complement that investment? (David D.)

A: Given the rising private investment in ag innovation, I suspect that public-private partnerships in R&D will grow increasingly important and valuable. In 2012, Congress created the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which creates and supports such partnerships. It is likely too early to systematically compare how effective this and older R&D programs are. However, the foundation has been able to leverage large amounts of private capital for R&D efforts with clear social, environmental, and even animal welfare benefits such as a project to eliminate the need to cull male chicks in the egg industry.

Q: You have discussed government research support for innovation, and private equity and venture capital as well. However, economic history shows that small independent individuals and small businesses have made a disproportionately large number of critical innovations. How can these innovators be financed to make the critical breakthroughs in climate change? (Anonymous)

A: One excellent and often overlooked federal program is the Small Business Innovation Research program. It provides early-stage grants to small businesses for research that is promising, but still too high risk for private investors. This program provided early-stage funding to companies such as Symantec, Qualcomm, and Natel Energy.

Q: I was interested in how much of an increase in government funding is being proposed? (David D.)

A: We model several scenarios, but the primary one reported is 7% annual growth in US government agricultural R&D between 2020 and 2030 (roughly equivalent to doubling funding), with no change in funding afterward until 2050. Between 2020 and 2050, the average annual cost would be $3.8 billion and the total cost would be $114.5 billion, both in 2005 USD. Although we don't estimate the potential cost per ton of CO2e per year in climate mitigation, previous research estimated it at roughly $25 per ton per year.

Q: I may have missed you guys addressing this, but your report mentions "increasing US public agricultural R&D spending would increase US cropland area." How does that exactly work? (Chris C.)

A: Increased ag R&D increases the productivity of US farmers. That means more output with less input and hence lower crop prices. A more productive US agricultural system is, therefore, more competitive internationally. All else equal, this leads to the US taking a greater share of the global market. We project that the increase in US production would be larger than the increase in yields, and so US cropland area would expand. Under our business-as-usual R&D scenario, we project US crop production, exports, and cropland area to grow 50%, 116.8%, and 1.9%, respectively, by 2050 relative to 2011. With a doubling of agricultural R&D spending, US production, exports, and cropland area would increase 92.8%, 252.9%, and 3%, respectively, by 2050. In other words, increased US agricultural R&D spending makes US exports cheaper, leading to substantially more production and marginally more cropland area in the US.

Counterintuitively, global cropland area however would fall since US crop production is much high-yielding on average than production elsewhere. In our business-as-usual scenario, we project 2050 cropland area to be 184.6 million hectares larger than in 2011 in our business-as-usual-scenario, but only 168.2 million hectares larger with roughly a doubling of US agricultural R&D spending. The global reduction in cropland outweighs any increase in US cropland. (Dan)

Q: When you look at the “universe” of all possible carbon removal solutions, it feels like the unique advantage of “natural” carbon removal solutions like no-till/regen ag is that the benefits can be realized today (vs. some of the nascent carbon removal technologies that need much more time to validate/mature). given how we’ve talked today about the need to increase R&D investment into better quantifying/verifying the climate returns of regen ag, would you characterize ag’s unique advantage in a different way? if so, how? (Iris S.)

A: First, I believe that USDA and states should expand and build upon existing agricultural conservation programs, which help farmers adopt cover crops, no-till, etc. These programs have many environmental benefits including reduced erosion, increased soil water retention, improved resilience to extreme weather, and soil carbon sequestration. However, some of the carbon is released later when farmers change practices or due to changes in weather and climate. This, as well as the cost and technical challenges of measuring soil carbon, limit their climate benefits. Nevertheless, the other benefits of these programs make them important and worthwhile investments.

Second, agriculture presents many opportunities for emissions reductions. About 10% of US GHG emissions arise from agricultural production. Much of this comes from methane from cattle and from fertilizer. Existing and close-to-market technologies could substantially reduce these emissions, though further innovation is needed to bring down costs and further decarbonize the sector. (Dan)

Q: Dan, you’ve written about the Salk project to elevate CO2 capture by plant root systems, what financial incentives would it take to persuade farmers to adopt such varieties, do we need a price on carbon? (Jonathan J.)

A: I hope that crops that sequester more carbon, like those being developed by the Salk Institute, also have greater yields (which often occur with greater soil carbon levels) or otherwise benefits farmers. Barring that, we may need to expand existing incentives for farmers to adopt best practices - such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program - or create new ones. A price on carbon could serve as an effective incentive, but the history of agricultural and climate policy in the US indicates that voluntary incentives are far more likely to garner support, be created, and remain on the books than regulations or taxes. (Dan)