To Decarbonize Food Production, Congress Must Invest in R&D

To address the large environmental challenges facing US agriculture, R&D funding will need to be at least doubled.

To Decarbonize Food Production, Congress Must Invest in R&D

According to the latest United Nations IPCC report, changes in agriculture, forestry, and land use account for over one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Cutting these emissions when global food insecurity is only growing worse is a daunting prospect. However, the report also notes that changes in forestry, diets, and agriculture—such as efforts to reduce enteric methane emissions from cattle, could make the sector net negative in greenhouse gas emissions, providing 20–30% of the global mitigation needed by 2050 to keep global warming below 2°C. This represents a huge opportunity, but it would require a major global investment: nearly a 600-fold increase in funding for climate change mitigation in the agriculture and forestry sector.

The latest federal spending bill, which Congress passed on December 23, is an important step toward ramping up such investments. It increased funding for the Department of Agriculture’s primary research, education, and economics (REE) agencies to $3.9 billion, an increase of roughly $217 million, or 6%.

But that won’t be enough. Adjusting for projected inflation, this increase will mean that 2023 funding levels for REE agencies will be similar to 2003 levels. In contrast, the Department of Energy’s research & development (R&D) budget increased by about 60% in this same period.

To address the large environmental challenges facing US agriculture—high fertilizer and other input costs, plateauing yields, pests, animal disease, supply chain issues, and decarbonization, to name a few—R&D funding will need to be at least doubled.

How agricultural R&D became a major tool in the fight against climate change

Government funding for agricultural R&D is crucial to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Since the 1960s, federally-supported advances in soil science, crop genetics, animal health, and other fields have helped farmers shrink land use by 9% and cut the carbon footprint of milk, beef, and pork by more than one-third. However, the food system—including farming, agriculturally-driven deforestation, food processing, transportation, and other activities—still accounts for 23-42% of global emissions and about 21% of US emissions.

One key area that additional funding could address is the development of farming practices and technologies to cut emissions from enteric fermentation (i.e., cow burps) which accounts for nearly 30% of US agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, but receives a small fraction of research funding related to climate mitigation. Additional funding is also needed for breeding and genetics programs to increase crop and livestock yields, which would help reduce the amount of forest, prairie, and other carbon-rich lands that needs to be converted to farmland.

Recent research commissioned by the Breakthrough Institute estimates that the productivity enhancements from doubling US government agricultural R&D spending would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions—relative to a business-as-usual scenario—by at least 213 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year. That works out to over one-third of current US agricultural emissions.

Further research breakthroughs, such as improvements to photosynthetic efficiency, could boost yields for major crops and reduce emissions even further, by more than 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year.

How will this year’s agricultural R&D funding be spent?

The $1.7 trillion federal spending bill for 2023 boosted funding for several major agricultural REE programs and agencies, while making only moderate changes to others.

The bill provides a $115 million—or 7%—nominal funding increase for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which conducts in-house research in partnership with universities across all 50 states. Research areas include crop and livestock productivity, alternative proteins, how different cattle feeds can reduce methane emissions, and other major topics in climate mitigation. The new funding will also support the maintenance and modernization of agricultural research facilities.

Meanwhile, the bill only increased funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the flagship competitive grant-making program for agricultural research, by $10 million to $455 million—a 2.2% nominal increase. That figure may be insufficient to even keep pace with inflation, and is far less than the program needs to fund high-priority research. AFRI has recently provided around $40 million per year to projects related to climate mitigation, including several focused on cutting enteric methane emissions from milk production, developing cultivated meat, and breeding crops to fix their own nitrogen. Yet over half of the proposals that AFRI’s expert review panel recommends are not funded due to financial constraints.

Indeed the Department of Agriculture requested $564 million to fund the program for FY23 and has previously requested $700 million. That increase would have had massive economic benefits—according to a recent study, every dollar invested in public agricultural research generates $20 in value for consumers, farmers, and businesses. It would also have had enormous environmental benefits; every $1 million increase in funding reduces future emissions by about 83 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year.

The new spending bill also increases funding for the Economic Research Service and National National Agricultural Statistics Service, which collect and publish critical economic and statistical information.

However, it provides only $1 million for the new Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA). Congress authorized the creation of AgARDA in the 2018 Farm Bill, but has never provided funding to establish the program. Modeled after other advanced R&D agencies such as DARPA and ARPA-E, AgARDA is meant to fund high-risk, high-reward projects that are too early-stage for private industry. While the $1 million in funding is a sign that Congress remains interested in funding advanced research, it is very little compared to the $76 million per year in AgARDA funding that was proposed in the Build Back Better Act. It is also minuscule compared to the $470 million allocated to ARPA-E, the Department of Energy agency charged with funding research on advanced energy technologies.

Ultimately, USDA and Congress should seek to develop and increase the adoption of profitable, productive, and environmentally-beneficial agricultural and food technologies. If done right, such work would mark a monumental step toward meeting the United States’ climate goals. But the work won’t happen if the agencies responsible for it remain underfunded.

Through legislation such as the Farm Bill and future spending bills, the next Congress should raise the bar, putting the country on a clear path to doubling agricultural R&D.

Adapted from “Federal Agriculture Innovation Funding Rose This Year, but Still Lags