Blog: Build Back Better Recognizes Climate Benefits of Agricultural Research

The most recent version of the Build Back Better Act, the result of months of negotiations that are still ongoing, includes $2 billion in new spending for agricultural research, research facilities, farmer education (extension), and higher education.

About $1.7 billion in new funding is included specifically for research and facilities, including:

  • $1 billion for university and college research facilities, a first but insufficient step to addressing the $11.5 billion needed to cover deferred maintenance.
  • $210 million for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which builds public-private partnerships to develop solutions to urgent challenges.
  • $210 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, USDA’s flagship program for providing competitive research grants.
  • $120 million for the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education program, a USDA competitive grant program that supports research and education projects aimed at environmental and economic sustainability for US agriculture.
  • $60 million for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, a USDA program that provides competitive grant funding to research, education, and extension projects dealing with issues facing organic agriculture.
  • $60 million for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, a USDA competitive grant program that supports research and extension targeting the specialty crop industry — farmers that produce fruits, vegetables, nuts, horticulture, and nursery crops that are used by people for food, medicine, or aesthetic purposes.
  • $30 million for AGARDA, the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority. AGARDA is the USDA’s version of DARPA or ARPA-E, and is slated to work on R&D topics focused on US export competitiveness, environmental sustainability, and general agricultural innovation.
  • $5 million for Urban, Indoor, and Emerging Agriculture, a USDA program that provides competitive grant funding for research and education programs, and formula funds for land-grant universities researching non-conventional agriculture.
  • $5 million for 1890 Land-Grant Universities, which includes the agricultural colleges at the prominent Historically Black Colleges and Universities founded through the Morrill Act of 1890.

The proposed funding is far less than the $7.75 billion originally proposed for agricultural research, facilities, extension, and education. The new framework does not include funding increases for the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s in-house research agency, which has conducted important research on decarbonizing beef and dairy production, among many other areas. Funding for most other areas fell substantially too. For example, funding for the construction and repair of agricultural research facilities was cut by more than half from $3.65 billion.

However, we project the funding increases will still have notable environmental and economic benefits. While the new Build Back Better plan would just increase next year’s funding, in order to estimate the environmental benefits we assume that the elevated funding levels are maintained into the future, adjusting for inflation. This could happen through future spending bills and the 2023 Farm Bill. In this case, we estimate that the $705 million increase in annual research funding (excluding funding for facilities) would reduce emissions by about 23.5 MMT CO2e/year from 2022-2050. In addition to the environmental benefits, agricultural R&D typically generates about $17 dollars in benefits to consumers, farmers, and the broader economy for every $1 spent.

The impact of the proposed R&D funding and future funding will also depend on how USDA administers it. The Build Back Better legislative text proposes that all new research funding be dedicated to research relating to climate change. However, USDA doesn’t typically categorize whether grants and research are related to climate change and will need to determine what is included. Productivity-enhancing research, such as research that enables farmers to produce more food with less land, fertilizer, fuel, and other resources or to be more resilient to heat, drought, and other stresses, can have particularly large climate benefits. We hope USDA considers such research as relating to climate change and allocates new funding for it.

Future increases in agricultural R&D funding could yield even greater climate benefits. Our research shows doubling agricultural R&D funding would reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by at least 109 million metric tons per year in 2050, equivalent to ⅙ of current US agriculture emissions.

Congress has recognized the climate benefits of research in proposing additional funding as part of the Build Back Better Act. We hope to see further and larger increases in future spending bills and the 2023 Farm Bill.

Acknowledgments: Food and Agriculture Analyst Alex Smith assisted in writing this post.