Restructuring Soil Science R&D for US Farmers and the Climate

US agriculture has been hit hard by COVID-19. Farmers face falling prices, shrinking export markets, and increasingly hazardous labor conditions and shortages. These synchronous agricultural crises place rural and semi-rural communities in dire straits.

While the difficulties facing US agriculture have no silver-bullet solution, agricultural research and development (R&D) is an important step toward boosting economic outcomes for farmers while combating climate change. Historically, publicly funded agricultural R&D played a key role in increasing productivity, economic development, and American pre-eminence among global agricultural producers.

Today, R&D related to soil science is a promising option to help address these multifaceted challenges in agriculture. Advances in soil science, particularly regarding soil microbiomes, have the potential to increase farm yields and income while reducing nitrogen runoff, improving soil health, sequestering carbon, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

To maximize these benefits, the federal government should create and invest in a soil science initiative. Such an initiative should be aimed at the development of technological breakthroughs in soil microbiology through the creation of a soil microbiome research hub, and the identification and validation of soil carbon sequestration practices through academic or public research. Increased funding and coordination of soil science in the United States can lead to both short-term environmental and economic benefits, and long-term sustainable, green growth for American agricultural producers.

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Executive Summary

  • COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis have highlighted and exacerbated the plight of American farmers, while also threatening already dwindling public funding for agricultural R&D innovation — a significant driver of agricultural productivity and farmer incomes.

  • Publicly funded soil science R&D has the potential to greatly increase farm productivity while simultaneously reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts of US agriculture.

  • Research into the soil microbiome has already led to biotech developments capable of improving crop yields while lowering input use and reducing fertilizer-related emissions and runoff — the full use of existing microbial biotech products can reduce GHG emissions from agriculture by 16 MMT CO2e/year. Biofertilizers, microbial inoculants, and other soil microbiological developments can help farmers achieve long-term goals of economic viability and environmental sustainability.

  • While there has been much political and activist interest in using soil carbon sequestration as a source of carbon offsets and agricultural emissions mitigation — cover crops, for example, have the potential to reduce emissions by around 100 MMT CO2e/year — agricultural practices that sequester carbon require further research to validate their benefits.

  • By creating an interagency soil science initiative, and utilizing the benefits of mission-oriented research programs, the government would create an environment capable of long-term innovation in soil microbiology, improve our understanding of soil carbon sequestration, and ensure a prosperous and sustainable future for American agriculture.
Read the full report here.