By Margaret M. Zeigler, Ph.D., SoAR Foundation Interim President
America’s agriculture and food system faces multiple threats to our social and economic future. From multi-year droughts, heat, and forest fires to hurricanes and flooding, our farmers, ranchers, and foresters need innovative and powerful tools to weather the storms that are now arriving with greater force and frequency.
Climate change is increasing the urgency of accelerating sustainable productivity growth. Through its impact on drought, floods, pests, weather variability, and even human health, climate change is already challenging farmers to produce more with reduced and less reliable natural resource inputs. Climate change has already cut growth in agricultural productivity, slowing productivity growth by 21% since 1961.
In addition to the threats from climate change, we also face strategic competition for leadership in agricultural innovation and advancement. At no other time in our history has the U.S. faced such direct competition from China, India, Brazil, and others around the world who outspend the U.S. in public agricultural research. The food and agriculture system is an economic powerhouse, creating one-fifth of the country’s economic activity and directly supporting nearly 20 million jobs with a total output of $7 trillion. Yet, agricultural research funding at the USDA has remained flat for the last 50 years in inflation adjusted dollars.
Food system resiliency in the face of climate change will not be realized without public investment in new drought- and heat-tolerant crops, livestock that are healthy and productive, and new ways to sequester carbon in the soil. We need research to ensure rigorous standards, new science on quantification methodologies, advances for the bioeconomy, economic research on nutrition and conservation practices and co-benefits, next generation precision agriculture, and more.
Today the good news is that we can meet these serious challenges. We know that agricultural research benefits all Americans, but particularly those in rural areas and regions where agriculture is a primary industry, while creating high-quality food and agriculture products that help feed a hungry world.
With the robust investments proposed today by the House Committee on Agriculture, investments in climate research, agricultural innovation, rural communities, and agricultural education can reverse the funding gap. This landmark legislation provides $7.75 billion in investment for agricultural research and infrastructure, over $18 billion in rural job-promoting investments for clean water and renewable energy as well as renewable biofuels infrastructure and nearly $40 billion for forestry programs that combat forest fires and contribute to research for healthy, resilient soils and forests. The returns on such investments are clear. U.S. public agricultural R&D spending returns, on average, $17 in benefits for every $1 invested.
Through these robust public investments, we can build resilience in the face of climate change and nutrition security challenges. Investments in research infrastructure are a generational down payment to secure our future and will help fill critical gaps in research, education, economics, and extension for decades to come.