From Lab to Farm

Climate smart agricultural R&D rose in 2023, but gaps remain

From Lab to Farm

Key Takeaways

  • Funding for agricultural climate mitigation from R&D agencies and programs has nearly doubled since 2017 to $421 million in 2023.

  • Yet, funding is low relative to agriculture’s share of emissions. Energy accounts for nearly 9-times more emissions than agriculture yet federal R&D programs spent at least 22-times more on clean energy innovation in 2023 than on agricultural climate mitigation.

  • R&D funding for agricultural mitigation would need to grow to at least $1 billion to reach parity with clean energy funding, relative to each sector’s emissions.

  • Funding is skewed toward carbon sequestration. Research on reducing enteric methane and rice methane receives disproportionately little support.


The latest estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—published every April—is that agriculture accounts for 9-10% of national greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions have modestly declined in recent years, but remain stubbornly high. Substantial investments in research and development (R&D) are key to dramatically cutting the sector’s carbon footprint and achieving many of the climate commitments various industry groups and companies have set forth.

For example, advances are needed in:

  • Fertilizers: Creating more efficient fertilizers that minimize nitrogen run-off and subsequent nitrous oxide emissions.

  • Manure management: Developing innovative techniques for manure treatment to capture and utilize methane for energy production or convert it into less harmful byproducts.

  • Improved livestock breeding and feed additives: Researching ways to reduce methane emissions from enteric fermentation, perhaps best known as cow burps.

  • Carbon farming: Measuring how different farming practices affect the amount of carbon stored in soils and improving their effectiveness.

  • Precision agriculture: Utilizing data and technology to optimize resource use (water, fertilizers, etc.) and minimize environmental impact.

In 2022, we published the first in-depth analysis of federal funding from R&D agencies dedicated to agricultural climate solutions. It found that from 2017 to 2021, the primary agencies funding agricultural R&D allocated $241 million annually to agricultural climate mitigation, roughly 35 times less than federal funding for clean energy innovation. It also found that most funds were directed to projects related to soil carbon sequestration.

We present here an updated analysis based on an examination of over one hundred thousand projects awarded funding between 2017 and 2023 by the largest federal funders of agricultural research: the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE), and other USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) programs; the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR); the National Science Foundation (NSF); the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program; and the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). We classified whether projects were related to different types of climate mitigation based on whether their titles and descriptions contained keywords. The results include funding awarded to projects focused on basic, applied, and developmental research; education; and extension. Where possible, we include data on funding from USDA’s internal research agencies — the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service, and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) — but were unable to classify their funding in a detailed manner as the agencies do not publish detailed project-level funding or expense data. We omit other USDA funding sources for which project-level data is unavailable, such as the Smith-Lever extension program, and several smaller sources of agricultural R&D funding such as USAID funding for Feed the Future Innovation Labs.

Agricultural mitigation funding is rising, but gaps remain

Since 2017, funding for agricultural climate mitigation from R&D agencies and programs has nearly doubled from around $226 million in 2017 to $421 million in 2023. This has accompanied a 4% decrease in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions since 2017. However, funding for agricultural climate mitigation is still low relative to its share of emissions. Energy accounts for about 9-times more emissions than agriculture yet federal R&D programs spent at least 22-times more on clean energy innovation in 2023 than on agricultural climate mitigation. R&D funding for agricultural mitigation would need to grow to at least $1 billion to reach parity with clean energy funding, relative to each sector’s emissions.

In addition, while funding for projects related to most types of agricultural climate mitigation has risen, it remains heavily focused on soil carbon sequestration. This has left several critical funding gaps related to major sources of agricultural emissions. Though funding has substantially risen for projects addressing enteric fermentation (a digestive process in cattle and similar animals), in 2023 it still received less than 8% of the categorized mitigation funding, despite contributing 32% of agricultural emissions. Likewise, methane from rice cultivation contributes about 3% of agricultural emissions but we estimate it receives less than 0.3% of mitigation funding. Many specific research areas and technologies considered important for climate mitigation such as enhanced rock weathering, microbial fertilizers, and nitrification inhibitors also remain underfunded.

ARS and NIFA AFRI are the primary R&D funders of agricultural mitigation

The primary funders of agricultural climate mitigation research are USDA’s largest research agencies: their internal research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS); and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which operates a wide variety of programs that supports projects at universities and other external institutions.

According to USDA, climate change-related funding at ARS rapidly increased from $113 million in 2022 to $213 million in 2023. ARS operates crucial research initiatives such as several projects on enteric methane emissions and the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) Network. However, since ARS does not provide funding details, the values reported here should be treated as a maximum amount. A portion of ARS’ climate change-related funding is likely spent on topics besides mitigation such as climate modeling or climate adaptation.

Within NIFA, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)—USDA’s flagship grant-making program—is the largest funder of climate mitigation R&D. We estimate AFRI awarded nearly $87 million in FY23 to mitigation projects. AFRI’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems program in particular provides important support to innovative long-term projects. This program has awarded about $80 million in competitive grants annually to large, multi-million dollar projects since 2019. For example, in FY24 it awarded $10 million to an Ohio State University initiative to create a farmer-led research network focused on accelerating adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices in the Midwest.

Five programs devote more than 20% of their funds to mitigation

Though ARS and AFRI stand out for awarding the most funding, a handful of different programs award a greater share of all their grants to mitigation projects. Five programs in particular awarded at least 20% of their project funding to climate mitigation between 2017 and 2023: NIFA’s Organic Transitions, McIntire-Stennis, and AFRI Sustainable Agricultural Systems programs; the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR); and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. NIFA’s McIntire-Stennis supports forestry research at state forestry schools and thus most of its mitigation funding unsurprisingly supports soil carbon sequestration. However, the other programs also largely support carbon sequestration. In fact, as can be seen in the figure below, sequestration accounts for the largest share of agricultural mitigation-related funding from most programs and agencies.

Congress and a variety of groups have recently indicated growing interest in funding research on enteric methane mitigation. The area still receives a small amount of funding relative to the funding need; one group of researchers says at least $100 million is needed globally just to run multiyear tests of feed additives. However, several programs allocate a modest portion of their grants to projects related to enteric methane.

  • AFRI’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems program has awarded about 5% of funds since 2017 to projects related to enteric methane, but has increased funding, particularly in FY24. In 2024, the program awarded $5 million to researchers at ​The University of Florida to create the next generation of methane-reducing feed additives for cattle, aiming to cut emissions by at least 25%.

  • The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) within NIFA has awarded about 4% of funds to enteric-related projects including $2.3 million in 2023 to a project at the University of Vermont on grass-fed dairy that includes measurement of how molasses supplementation affects methane emissions.

FFAR has historically awarded about 2% of funds to projects related to enteric methane, but has also significantly increased its support recently. In 2023, FFAR and its partners awarded over $5 million in grants to projects under the Greener Cattle Initiative, a public-private consortium, including $3.3 million to researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to identify ways that selective breeding of dairy cattle could lower emissions. In 2024, FFAR announced up to $5 million more for a second round of projects.

Funding is skewed toward carbon sequestration research areas

To more precisely identify potential gaps in R&D funding, we estimated funding levels for select research areas, farming practices, and technologies that are often claimed to be important for mitigation. This further illustrates how funding is skewed toward areas focused on carbon sequestration more than emissions reduction. Far more funding was awarded to projects involving cover crops between 2017 and 2023 than to projects related to other mitigation areas. Many of the other top-researched areas are also focused on carbon sequestration such as no/reduced till farming, breeding crops to have enhanced roots that capture more carbon, and biochar.

More modest amounts of funding were awarded to projects related to emissions reduction through precision agriculture, methane-reducing feed additives, and anaerobic manure digesters. Funding for these areas has generally increased in recent years. However, these areas and many others still receive relatively little funding compared to what researchers estimate is needed. For instance, a 2019 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report estimated that research on crops with enhanced roots would require $40–$50 million in annual funding for a period of 20 years, about 4 to 5-times more than recent federal funding levels.

Policymakers should address insufficient and skewed funding

Our analysis underscores significant shortcomings in R&D funding for agricultural climate mitigation. Funding has significantly grown, reaching $421 million in 2023, suggesting growing recognition of the need to invest in climate-smart agricultural innovation. However, this investment remains low when juxtaposed with the sector's emission footprint. Federal R&D programs allocated at least 22 times more to clean energy innovation than to agricultural climate mitigation in 2023, a misalignment that demands urgent attention.

To bridge this gap, policymakers should advocate for significantly increasing R&D funding for agricultural mitigation. Allocating roughly $1 billion would achieve parity with clean energy investment relative to sectoral emissions. A strategic realignment of R&D funding is also needed, reducing the heavy skew towards carbon sequestration and more strongly supporting research on emissions reduction such as work related to enteric fermentation, rice methane, and fertilizers

Policy changes that would contribute to these goals include:

  • Double overall agricultural R&D funding. Increasing research funding in general not only would provide more funding for agricultural mitigation, but is also projected to increase agricultural productivity, raise crop and livestock output, and reduce food prices.

  • Expand federal research for enteric methane, such as through the EMIT LESS Act.

  • Reauthorize and increase funding for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in the Farm Bill. FFAR awards a greater share of its grant funding to mitigation than nearly any other program.

  • Authorize and expand funding for a variety of other federal research programs in the Farm Bill, like the ARS LTAR Network.

Perhaps more than ever, there is strong bipartisan support within Congress for agricultural research. The time for a bold, comprehensive approach to funding climate-smart agricultural research is now. With sufficient support, the country could soon look to the agricultural sector as a model of climate-smart innovation as much as it currently looks toward clean energy or transportation.


We analyzed the text in descriptions of over 100,000 projects funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), NIFA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), National Science Foundation (NSF), ARPA-E, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. We categorized projects based on whether their titles, abstracts, summaries, objectives, or other descriptive fields included keywords related to any of the largest agricultural GHG sources that the EPA reports: nitrous oxide from agricultural soils, enteric fermentation, manure management, and rice cultivation. We also assessed whether projects included keywords related to soil carbon sequestration or “other” climate mitigation that didn’t fit within the other categories. In addition, we used keyword analysis to categorize projects based on whether they were related to specific research areas, farming practices, and technologies such as cover crops, biochar, or microbial fertilizers. Thank you to Caroline Normile, Chris Gambino, Jasmine Yu, and Marcia DeLonge who provided early input on keywords and methods.

For NIFA formula projects, amounts reflect expenses per fiscal year. For other agencies and programs, amounts reflect award amounts per fiscal year. For ARPA-E, we manually classified projects based on data shared by agency staff and BTI staff review of project descriptions and program descriptions. In calculations and graphs of the change in funding from 2017 to 2023 and average 2017-2023 funding by emissions source, we assumed 2022 and 2023 funding amounts for NIFA formula and CIG were equal to 2021 amounts, and that 2017-2019 amounts for ARS were equal to 2020 amounts. We accessed agency and program data between 02/23/24 and 03/21/24.

This is the most comprehensive analysis of spending from R&D agencies and programs on agricultural climate mitigation that we are aware of. However, it is not all-encompassing and there are notable limitations and areas for future improvement. Detailed project-level funding or expense data were not available for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS), or National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). We omit funding from the IRA-funded initiative at NRCS to improve measuring, monitoring, reporting, and verification (MMRV) of GHG emissions and carbon sequestration due to lack of data as of the end of FY23. Likewise, we omit USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities. It is focused on increasing farmers’ adoption of mitigation practices rather than on research, though there are research-related activities such as measurement of emissions and carbon sequestration that we may incorporate into future updates to this analysis. We also do not include any Department of Energy programs other than ARPA-E; Department of State (e.g. USAID); or other agencies. In addition, many projects that include a mitigation component also include research, extension, or education components related to other topics. Therefore, we consider the values reported here to be upper-end estimates for the programs included.

Data Tables