In their climate change campaigning, Democratic presidential candidates have called for funding more agricultural research and development (R&D). This is welcome in principle, but their rhetoric and proposals have undervalued or entirely missed what is arguably the biggest way R&D can reduce emissions: by increasing yields to limit agriculture’s footprint on the land.
Many candidates have proposed only modest increases in R&D funding. Bernie Sanders, for instance, proposes increasing public funding by $1.5 billion — only enough to return funding levels to where they were in the early 2000s.
Much of what the candidates do aim to fund with additional R&D, moreover, indulges a familiar trope: that the climate demands a revolution from the US agricultural system. In Sanders’ vision, for instance, instead of “having food products transported all over the world, as much as we can, [we would] get it locally.” And Andrew Yang has proposed dedicating about 30% of public R&D funds for vertical farms.
In reality, the largest environmental and economic benefits from R&D have long come from fueling a trend that the US agricultural system has been following for at least a half century: increasing yields and other forms of productivity. The products and practices that have been developed through R&D have enabled farmers and ranchers to produce the same amount of food or more with less land, fertilizer, animal feed, and other inputs. Since each of these inputs are carbon-intensive, especially land, improvements in productivity have dramatically reduced emissions. For instance, since 1990, improvements in productivity have helped cut the carbon intensity of US grain and dairy production by 20% and 35%, respectively.
Raising productivity can also benefit US farmers financially by increasing their global competitiveness. When farmers become more productive, they can reduce both their cost of production and their prices, and so compete better with international producers. According to our preliminary analysis, a doubling of government R&D funding over the next ten years could more than double future crop exports,By 2050 compared to a scenario where business-as-usual R&D trends continue. As R&D investments yield scientific and technological advances, productivity gradually rises, increasing exports more and more each year until the new technologies become obsolete.increasing America’s global agricultural market share.
Greater US market share also has global carbon benefits. US farmers have some of the lowest GHG emissions per unit of production in the world, in large part because US agriculture is particularly high-yielding. It uses less land and therefore causes less deforestation and other land use change than farming in other countries. Global emissions therefore fall when US farmers produce more of the world’s food.
Taking the global benefits into account, the productivity gains from doubling R&D funding would reduce future emissions by more than 100 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year by 2050, by our calculation. That is equivalent to cutting current emissions from all US crop production in half.
Were candidates aware of R&D’s true environmental utility, they would likely propose funding it at the level it deserves. One of the only candidates to come close is Pete Buttigieg, who has proposed doubling funding.
If Democratic candidates think that climate change calls for revolutionary change in US agriculture, their proposals should be more ambitious, and reflect the fundamental challenge of agricultural climate mitigation: increasing productivity.