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The Farm Bill is Key to Accelerating Innovation and Protecting the Climate
COMMENTARY | The Ecomodernist

The Farm Bill is Key to Accelerating Innovation and Protecting the Climate

With Democrats’ hopes of passing the Build Back Better bill fading, environmental activists’ dreams of immediate climate action are dwindling as well. Many are lamenting this missed opportunity to tackle the climate crisis — and rightfully so. But it’s important that we not lose sight of another major policy opportunity around the corner: the 2023 farm bill. 

The farm bill, passed about every five years, covers a variety of agriculture and food programs, including disaster assistance, crop insurance, conservation programs, food export subsidies, nutrition assistance and agricultural research and extension programs. While many of these programs touch on climate change, the farm bill has not historically been treated as climate legislation – in part because climate considerations have been overshadowed by rural development and nutrition assistance priorities, but also because of a general lack of awareness about agricultural policy’s power to improve climate outcomes.

To the extent that farm bill advocacy efforts have incorporated environmental priorities, they have traditionally centered around conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. While undeniably beneficial, these are far from the only efforts with climate potential. In particular, the innovation funded by farm bill research programs could dramatically improve agriculture’s environmental outcomes. 

Specifically, doubling U.S. agricultural research spending over 10 years would provide huge benefits to the environment and farmers. According to Breakthrough’s Daniel Blaustein-Rejto and Purdue University’s Uris Baldos, doubling U.S. agricultural R&D spending between 2020 and 2030 could reduce international agricultural land use by about 63,000 square miles and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 109 million tons per year by 2050. That’s equivalent to ⅙ of U.S. agricultural emissions


A stronger focus on agricultural research programs could also increase bipartisan support for the bill. Bipartisanship might sound like a pipe dream, but unlike many other types of climate action, agricultural research has traditionally garnered support from both parties. This is in part because every member of Congress has a Land Grant University or Agricultural Research Service center in their state and also because agricultural research qualifies as what we at the Breakthrough Institute call “quiet climate policy”— that is, policy that does the work without necessarily garnering much attention or backlash. 

Quiet climate policies have most often involved federal investments in technological innovations and infrastructure improvements. In the case of agriculture, farm bill research programs like the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have been the main drivers of quiet climate progress. These programs have supported the development of new technologies and practices that boost agricultural productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all while generating economic benefits and steering clear of controversy.

Agricultural research’s “quietness” does not signal a lack of impact. Although conventional agricultural research like crop and livestock breeding may not seem to have a clear climate connection, such innovations play a major role in fighting climate change by boosting productivity and reducing the agricultural inputs required to produce food. Since the 1960s, innovation-driven productivity advances have enabled farmers to reduce land use by 9% and cut the carbon footprint of milk and chicken by over 50%.


Agricultural research can also fight climate change by targeting research areas with especially high mitigation potential. In the U.S., soil management, manure management, and enteric fermentation account for 55%, 13%, and 29% of agricultural emissions, respectively, so investing in research on those topics could go a long way towards making U.S. agriculture carbon neutral.

For example, the U.S. could reduce emissions from beef production by 48% if breakthrough technologies — such as methane-inhibiting feed additives for grazing cattle and low-carbon cattle breeding — were fully adopted alongside existing practices by 2030.

On the soil management front, applying crushed silicate rocks to half of U.S. cropland — a practice called enhanced rock weathering — could remove around 0.4 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. The onus of funding such environmentally and socially beneficial research falls on the federal government, since the private sector conducts comparatively little agricultural research associated with natural resources and the environment. 

To address climate change’s myriad agricultural sources and impacts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will need to maintain a diverse portfolio of research projects and each of USDA’s research programs has an important role to play. The in-house research conducted by ARS, for example, tends to be lower risk and benefits from more reliable, longer-term funding. This research is complemented by the shorter-term, competitive grants awarded to research institutes and universities by NIFA and by the multi-year, high-risk, high-reward projects that could be supported by the authorized but not-yet-funded Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority.

Each year, Congress apportions discretionary funding to USDA research programs through the appropriations process. However, doubling agricultural research funding cannot be accomplished through appropriations alone — the authorization levels set in the Farm Bill impose a limit on how much money can be allocated to each program. Ultimately, doubling agricultural research spending will likely require a combination of three farm bill strategies: increased authorization levels for existing programs; the authorization of new research programs; and the provision of some mandatory research funding.


Even with agricultural research’s pragmatic charms and bipartisan appeal, large funding increases in the next farm bill are far from guaranteed. Whichever party holds control of Congress next year will have a huge opportunity to shape agricultural — and climate — policy, so heading into Farm Bill negotiations, it will be critical that agricultural stakeholders and environmental advocates alike recognize agricultural research’s immense climate potential.


Caroline Grunewald is Government Affairs Manager, Food & Agriculture at The Breakthrough Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @caro_grunewald.

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