Agricultural research and development (R&D) has improved the productivity, global competitiveness and environmental sustainability of American farms. For example, since the 1960s, productivity advances have enabled farmers to reduce land use by nine percent and cut the carbon footprint per pound of milk and chicken over 50 percent.
There are many opportunities for innovation to further reduce agricultural emissions. Beef production, nitrogen fertilizer and dairy production – the largest sources of agricultural emissions – account for 2.1 percent, 2.1 percent and 1.2 percent of total US greenhouse emissions, respectively.
COVID-19 is exacerbating the decline in public R&D and threatening private sector R&D as well. Research at universities, government labs and companies has slowed down as labs have closed or downsized. Also, venture capital funding for startups is falling, though lab, salary and other expenses remain. To ensure that promising research efforts, companies and infant industries do not fail, it is critical to increase public R&D funding as well as incentives for private R&D investments.
Economic and Environmental Importance of Agricultural R&D
Recent years have seen a boom in food and agricultural startups and research contributing to sustainable intensification, aiming to raise agricultural productivity while reducing environmental impacts. Particularly promising efforts have developed, or seek to develop:
- Crops and livestock varieties that are higher-yielding and more resilient to extreme weather
- Crop varieties that sequester at least 50 percent more carbon in soils than current varieties
- Microbial seed treatments and soil amendments that can increase yields on the order of ten percent, reduce fertilizer application rates and reduce both nitrate leaching and greenhouse gas emissions
- Fertilizers made from clean energy and fertilizer products that reduce fertilizer greenhouse gas emissions as much as 44 percent
- Alternative proteins such as plant-based and cell-cultured meat that pose less zoonotic disease, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and food safety risks than conventional meat products, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions
- Cattle feed supplements that could cut US beef and dairy methane emissions as much as 23 percent and 19 percent, respectively, while increasing animal yields
Unless R&D funding and support is expanded, labs may need to cancel research projects that could otherwise have given rise to innovative new technologies and companies. In addition, without expanding support for the private sector, including for R&D, companies may shut down and would-be entrepreneurs may not start new businesses. There are several ways the federal government could support agricultural R&D to continue rapid innovation and growth in areas with large financial and environmental potential.
Stabilize and Strengthen Existing Public Research Capacity
Before the pandemic, publicly-funded external research efforts were hamstrung by stagnant funding levels and deteriorating facilities. Without additional funding, COVID-related research delays and shutdowns are further undermining research.
Providing supplemental appropriations to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) research agencies would enable grant and contract-funded researchers to cover current expenses and restart projects. Multi-month lab closures have led to delays and potential cost-overruns in projects with a fixed amount of funding.
Supplemental funds should be used to extend grant and contract funding, covering additional personnel and lab costs. Funds should also provide emergency relief to core facilities to maintain base operations, particularly in regions expected to re-open more slowly.
Develop New Interagency Research Initiatives
Developing new R&D initiatives focused on individual technologies would address long-standing research shortfalls, mitigate new COVID-related research slowdowns and advance long-term sustainable intensification. New R&D efforts should target fields with long-standing research gaps that have been exacerbated recently, and that have high long-term economic and environmental potential.
Interagency research is necessary to effectively fund research in many fields given the wide range of scientific disciplines involved. Many agencies – particularly USDA and Department of Energy (DOE) – fund and conduct active research on sustainable intensification.
Coordinated interagency efforts, as the successful National Nanotechnology Initiative has shown, could reduce redundancy, cut costs and improve agency productivity, while targeting research capacity toward promising industries. New initiatives could include, among others:
- An alternative protein initiative to build and maintain US leadership in the rapidly growing alternative protein industry
- A future of livestock initiative to establish US leadership in the promising industry of products that can increase livestock productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
- An agricultural nitrogen initiative to bring down the cost of new technologies that increase crop yields, reduce farmers’ fertilizer costs, and reduce nitrogen pollution.
- An enhanced root systems initiative to enhance crop productivity and soil carbon sequestration.
While the payoff from agricultural research investments today is unpredictable, past experience suggests agricultural funding would have outsized job-created benefits. Ultimately, funding would generate thousands of new jobs for researchers, support staff, suppliers of scientific equipment and others.