Commentary: Research investments will help farmers help climate


Issue Date: September 18, 2019
By John Newton
John Newton
China has surpassed the United States in public spending on agricultural research, and now invests twice as much as does the U.S.
Graphic/AFBF

When the question arises of how we are going to feed the world's 9 billion people in a climate that seems increasingly volatile and extreme, all eyes turn to U.S. agriculture, and rightfully so. Important lessons can be gleaned from the longtime efforts of farmers to promote soil health, conserve water and efficiently use nutrients.

U.S. Department of Agriculture data reveal that during the last 70 years, U.S. farmers have boosted agricultural output by 270% while the use of resources such as land, fertilizers, chemicals and energy has remained mostly unchanged. They've done so by developing new technologies that allow them to be more productive on the farm. At the same time farmers are growing their productivity, they're shrinking their carbon footprint.

Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reveal that in 2017, agriculture represented only 9% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—far less than the 57% of emissions generated by motor vehicles and electric power generation. Since 1990, per-unit greenhouse gas emissions related to beef production have declined by 9%. Milk-production-related GHG emissions have declined by 25%. Moreover, methane emissions from enteric fermentation (cows passing gas) represent less than 3% of all GHG emissions annually.

The successes of farmers, ranchers and foresters go well beyond a smaller carbon footprint.

Afforestation, the process of planting trees, has accelerated because we're using less land to grow crops and raise livestock. These land use changes and forestry efforts consistently provide a net emission reduction larger than that of all emissions from agricultural production. Put another way: Farmers, ranchers and foresters are leading the way to deliver solutions.

Then there's renewable energy. For example, methane digesters have turned waste into a value-added product used on and off the farm. In the last five years, the use of methane digester technology has increased by nearly 30%, helping to turn waste into clean natural gas, fertilizers and other renewable products.

We're also doing more to protect natural resources. Farmers planted 50% more cover crops in 2017 than they did five years earlier, helping to conserve soil, nutrients and water in the ground. More than 15% of all U.S. farmland is enrolled in federal initiatives to implement conservation or wildlife preservation practices—that's more than the land area of California and New York combined.

For decades, we've invested in agricultural research and adopted practices to improve productivity, provide clean and renewable energy, and enhance sustainability. But now we've fallen behind other countries, like China, which is devoting twice as much public funding to agricultural research and development than the U.S.

Agriculture will continue to play an important role in helping the world adapt to and mitigate climate change, but U.S. farmers and ranchers need partners to help balance economic sustainability with environmental sustainability.

Currently, much of the cost of sustainability efforts falls on farmers; the rest of the supply chain bears little of the financial load. With commodity prices at multi-year lows, farmers cannot afford to adopt many new climate-adaptive technologies without consumers and food companies stepping up as partners.

Taxpayers can be proud of the federal investment in conservation programs—they are an effective part of agriculture's sustainability story. But additional public funding for agricultural research and development is needed to develop the new technologies that will empower farmers and ranchers to write the next chapter. Innovation is key to advance the preservation of our natural resources.

Finally, while U.S. agriculture works toward a negative carbon footprint, similar production practices must be implemented globally. The U.S. is leaps and bounds ahead of some countries that rely heavily on emission-intensive manufacturing.

That said, American farmers and ranchers are neither bragging nor finger-pointing because they're too busy finding new ways to do more with less.

(John Newton is chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.