The Breakthrough Institute’s Vision for the 2023 Farm Bill

As 2023 Farm Bill negotiations heat up in Congress, Breakthrough issues its agricultural research and trade policy recommendations.

The Breakthrough Institute’s Vision for the 2023 Farm Bill

The Breakthrough Institute envisions a future where major cuts to greenhouse gas emissions come through the innovation and adoption of advanced technologies in the agriculture sector. Such advancements will enable sustainable productivity growth that is not only good for the environment, but also good for people, protecting rural livelihoods and empowering producers to lead on climate adaptation and mitigation.

Over the last several decades, the United States. has consistently increased its investment to spur the clean energy transition, but federal support for food and agriculture innovation has lagged behind. With a forward-looking, concerted government effort to double public research and development (R&D) spending and to shift trade policies to spread the benefits of that R&D globally, the United States can take meaningful steps to meet its climate goals and improve the resilience of its agricultural sector.

The 2023 Farm Bill marks a critical opportunity to advance this agenda through agricultural research and trade policies. Breakthrough’s recommendations aim to bolster the innovation needed to both drive agricultural productivity and decarbonize the sector. By reversing recent declines in public agricultural research investment and by strengthening agricultural market development programs in the 2023 Farm Bill, Congress has the opportunity to catalyze unprecedented technological innovation and make major progress toward the United States’ climate goals

Summary of Recommendations

Reverse the decline in public agricultural R&D funding

As American farmers and ranchers face increasingly extreme weather, new pest and disease pressures, and falling yields for key crops, publicly funded agricultural research programs and agencies are more important than ever. These bodies play a key role in developing improved agricultural practices and technologies that are climate-smart, farmer-focused, and region-specific. Yet adjusted for inflation, annual public agricultural R&D expenditures in the U.S. have declined by about one-third since peaking in 2002. The need for significant increases in public agricultural research investments has never been greater. Additional federal funding would help ensure that producers have the tools needed to maintain resilience in the face of growing challenges.

  • Expand key USDA intramural and competitive grant funding programs for agricultural research.
  • Increase support for public-private partnerships to maximize research investments to tackle food and agricultural challenges.
  • Strengthen investment in advanced, high-risk, high-reward agricultural research.
  • Prioritize funding for research areas with high potential to increase yields, improve resilience, and reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.

Strengthen agricultural trade and market development programs

Many agricultural goods—including corn, beef, and chicken—come with a smaller land and carbon footprint when produced in the United States than when produced in most other countries. In addition, U.S. researchers and companies develop genetically engineered seeds and other technologies that can help producers around the world raise yields and minimize their environmental footprint. Reducing trade barriers and investing in market development for such products could have global climate benefits.

  • Expand support within market development programs for agricultural products and technologies that increase yields and reduce environmental impact.

Recommendations for Title VII: Research

The environmental and economic case for renewing the pace of investment in public agricultural R&D

Over the last century, agricultural research has played a significant role in transforming U.S. agriculture to become larger, more export-oriented, and much more efficient. With the fast-paced development of new technologies, inputs, and production practices, agricultural modernization has led to unprecedented levels of agricultural productivity. Productivity growth has, in turn, reduced food prices, reduced land use, led to more efficient use of inputs and cut the carbon footprint of milk, chicken, beef, and many other products.

As research-driven innovations continue to enable producers to grow more on less land with fewer inputs, U.S. agricultural productivity growth has reduced land use and thereby decreased greenhouse gas emissions, habitat loss, and other environmental impacts associated with expanding pasture and cropland. In fact, since 1945, the total acreage of U.S. agricultural land use has declined by about a fifth, while agricultural output increased over twofold. This modern miracle of agricultural abundance owes much to historic public funding for agricultural R&D administered by the U.S. Department of Agricultural (USDA).

Despite this progress, agricultural production still contributes 11 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. At present, agricultural research only accounts for 2 percent of total federal R&D spending, but analysis from the Breakthrough Institute has shown that greater U.S. agricultural R&D spending would—by spurring productivity growth—generate large environmental and economic benefits. In fact, doubling public U.S. agricultural R&D spending over the course of a decade would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 213 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year, corresponding to over one-third of current U.S. agricultural emissions.

Furthermore, funding agricultural research is a sound economic investment. Between 1900 and 2011, every dollar of USDA research spending has generated an average of $20 in benefits to consumers and the broader economy.

For all of the proven potential of public research to improve climate and economic outcomes, the United States is underinvesting in its agricultural research agencies. A 2022 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service states that U.S. public spending on agricultural R&D has fallen by about a third in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last two decades. This is similar to the level of spending in the 1970s. The falling trend, coupled with rising spending in Brazil, China, and the European Union, has reduced the U.S. share in public agricultural R&D worldwide.

With U.S. producers facing growing climate challenges, geopolitical strife posing threats to the global food system, and the global agricultural productivity growth rate hovering below the rate needed to feed the world population in 2050, public R&D spending remains a powerful tool to generate solutions. Several USDA programs and agencies are well-positioned to carry out research on environmentally beneficial and productivity-enhancing innovations and practices, such as new high-yielding and drought-tolerant crop varieties and improved livestock grazing and soil management practices. Public agricultural R&D is also needed to spur the development of low-carbon innovations like crop cultivars with deeper root systems and methane-inhibiting cattle feed additives which show potential for reducing agriculture’s climate footprint.

In the 2023 Farm Bill, Congress must prioritize support for USDA agencies, programs, and specific research areas with the potential to reduce agriculture’s climate footprint. Congress should take the following actions:

  • Ensure consistent increases in funding for research programs keep pace with inflation, enabling agencies to better make long-term research investments. The Farm Bill could adjust annual funding for USDA’s major research programs for inflation and increase funding by an additional percentage each year, such as by 5%, as proposed in the America Grows Act.
  • Increase authorized funding for Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the competitive grants program, at $950 million per year. Adjusting for inflation, this is approximately equivalent to the $700 million AFRI was authorized for in 2008.
  • Reauthorize the Foundation for Food and Agriculture (FFAR), which utilizes public-private partnerships to fund research projects, with at least $250 million in mandatory funding, and add funding for the foundation to the farm bill baseline budget. Adjusting for inflation, this is approximately equivalent to the $200 million FFAR was authorized for in 2014. Additional stakeholders have recommended providing up to $375 million in mandatory funding over the next 5 years to further expand the foundation's research efforts.
  • Reauthorize the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority pilot (AgARDA), which would support cutting-edge, high-risk, high-reward research, with $100 million per year in mandatory funding. This would enable AgARDA to support at least 3 medium-sized ARPA-style programs. Further increases in funding for AgARDA would allow the agency to support additional programs and demonstrate its value. Other existing ARPA agencies relied on larger budgets, such as the Department of Energy ARPA-E program’s initial $400 million per year authorization, to achieve success, and AgARDA could do the same with sufficient resources.
  • Authorize funding for the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network (LTAR) at $50 million per year and USDA Climate Hubs at $50 million per year to enhance research capacity by enabling research sites to rely on consistent annual funding.
  • Reauthorize the Genome to Phenome Initiative at $40 million per year to enhance the environmental benefits of genetic engineering research.
  • Prioritize research with the potential to substantially increase productivity and reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. This includes research on enteric methane mitigation and meat and milk alternatives.

Recommendations for Title III: Trade

Opportunities for agricultural trade policy to maximize global greenhouse gas emission reductions

Rising temperatures, widespread drought, more frequent heat waves, shifting pest patterns, and other impacts of climate change will continue to threaten food production in the coming decades. As these threats persist and worsen, U.S. trade and market development programs have a role to play in reducing agricultural emissions namely by promoting low-emission products for export and reducing trade barriers for biotechnology.

Based on trade data from the last two decades, exports of many agricultural products from countries with high emissions intensities are increasing at a faster pace than exports from countries with low emissions intensities. This is true for crops like corn as well as cattle and chicken. U.S. trade policies and programs, such as USDA’s Market Access Program (MAP) and Foreign Market Development Program (FMD), could help to address this mismatch by shifting agricultural production and exports from high emission-intensity- to low emission-intensity countries.

There may be tradeoffs that come with promoting the export of agricultural goods that the United States produces with a lower carbon footprint. For instance, the production of some relatively low-emission products may have other environmental impacts (e.g. water use) that are higher than in other countries. However, accounting for these multiple impacts and shifting production to locations that have the lowest environmental footprint has tremendous potential to improve global environmental sustainability. Another potential tradeoff is that if export promotion increases domestic production of certain products, it could spur the conversion of environmentally valuable landscapes like forests to agricultural land. Yet, if this production uses less land and has smaller impacts than production elsewhere, it would reduce agriculture’s global impacts.

Beyond crops and livestock, there are technologies and innovations developed by U.S. researchers and companies that can help producers around the world raise yields and reduce their environmental footprint. For example, genetic engineering and biotechnology can help raise yields, which can reduce cropland expansion, and in turn, greenhouse gas emissions. However, trade policies play an important role in determining whether producers around the world can access such technologies.

Trade programs that bridge differences in biotechnology regulations between countries will help to advance the potential for biotechnology to improve sustainable productivity growth globally. Restrictions on imports of products of agricultural biotechnology in other countries reduce the ability of the U.S. to trade these products internationally, reduce the scale of global benefits of biotechnology, and increase the cost of meeting technical and regulatory requirements for trade.

In the 2023 Farm Bill, Congress must strengthen agricultural trade programs that develop new and reinforce existing markets for climate-smart technologies and low-emission agricultural products. Congress should take the following actions:

For a summary of Breakthrough's 2023 Farm Bill recommendations, click below to download our fact sheet:
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