Today’s agriculture and climate policies are shaping the future of our global food supply. According to current projections, the global population will be 30 percent higher in 2050 than it is today. Because of this and anticipated dietary changes, farmers will need to produce 50 percent more food by 2050. Farmers will need to increase productivity without expanding the land base (there is little land base to expand) or causing further environmental degradation.
Expanding food production by 50 percent in 35 years in a changing climate requires an “all hands on deck” approach. What, if anything, can produce growers do to shape the future of our global food supply? Many researchers and agricultural policy wonks say, in the United States, current funding is inadequate for research that would actually help growers meet this challenge. Additionally, there is concern that much of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s current research funding is focused on the wrong areas.
Steering research in the feed-the-world direction
All scientists interviewed for this article said agricultural research is not keeping pace with the challenge ahead. University of California-Davis hydrologist Samuel Sandoval Solis said though it’s clear the climate will get warmer, it’s unclear exactly how the climate will shift, which crops will grow in the changing climate and how much water, fertilizer and pesticides those crops will need.
Brise Tencer, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) added, “Climate change can impact heat, precipitation and chill factors, not to mention disease and pest patterns.”
Michigan State University researcher Phil Robertson said growers need more research in adaptation and mitigation. “Building the knowledge needed to ensure that future cropping systems are resilient in the face of a more variable climate is largely neglected due to lack of funding,” he said.
Activists in California are working to discover farming systems that help stabilize the climate. Robertson said this is as important as research into adaptation, if not more so. In May, the California Department of Food and Agriculture released a draft framework for the state’s new Healthy Soils Initiative. The program will provide financial incentives for farmers and ranchers to increase soil carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with additional funding for on-farm demonstration projects that bring together agricultural partners, including growers, to field test management practices that provide climate benefits. As reported on the California Climate Action Network’s blog in May, more than 20 farm management practices are eligible for financial incentive, including the following:
- Cover cropping.
- Replacing synthetic N fertilizer.
- Hedgerow planting.
California’s Air Resources Board was tasked with determining how to quantify the greenhouse gas emission reductions from on-farm management practices. The first grant awards will be announced by February.
In 2014, the USDA established a network of Climate Hubs to turn available science into a usable form to help farmers make management decisions. “The research is not complete,” said Randy Johnson, national leader for the USDA’s Climate Hubs program. “But there is enough out there that can help farmers adapt to the impacts they are feeling now.”
The Climate Hubs are also charged with developing a dialogue between scientists and land managers, so research organizations can better tune their work to the needs of the people on the ground.
“Are we doing it as fast as we’d like? Probably not,” Johnson said. “It takes time to learn the ropes and establish solid relationships with the other players. We are hardly two years old and I’m impressed with what we have accomplished to date.”
Dr. Marjorie Kaplan, who leads the Rutgers Climate Institute, said, “Together, USDA and universities are helping to synthesize and share information on what farmers can do to address climate change. We here at Rutgers are actually in the process of making several videos on this topic, and the NE Hub is working on a virtual network of demonstration sites.”
Kaplan noted that many in the ag community are researching adaptation measures. “Perhaps it’s just not been phrased as climate change because climate itself really is inherent in farming,” she said. “Many scientists are looking at changes in the way crops respond and are working to develop varieties that are, for example, resistant to pests and pathogens, or able to tolerate drought or increased salinity.”
Policy’s effect on research
Farmers have coped with disasters like drought and flooding since the beginning of agriculture. Tencer speculated that the impacts of climate change on farming are understudied because the associated challenges have only recently begun to intensify. Stresses like drought and new invasive pest species draw attention and demonstrate a need for increased resources to address the challenges.
Steve Gilman of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Interstate Council described this period in agriculture as a time of unchecked seed industry consolidation. He expressed concern about the repercussions for climate change and food security. According to Gilman, most seed research funding supports developing proprietary crop varieties that are totally dependent on fossil fuel-based chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Gilman said farmers need plant varieties that
- Are regionally specific.
- Have genetically diverse cultivars.
- Are bred to thrive without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
The energy U.S. growers use for crop production, including fuel and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, comprises less than 2 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, according to USDA data. Thus, Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC-Davis, said concerns over petro-based agricultural inputs are exaggerated, even counterproductive. “Completely eliminating both fertilizer and pesticides would reduce U.S. energy consumption by about 1 percent, while reducing productivity 30 percent [or more].”
Whereas Bradford contradicted Gilman’s suggestion that additional funding for organic research is the path to food security, Bradford agreed with Gilman and Robertson on one key point: Growers need cultivars that are adapted to the increasing stresses of climate change and more effective at sequestering carbon. Robertson added, “I am a big fan of organic, but it does not have exclusive solutions in this space.”
USDA’s Economic Research Service reports less than 1 percent of U.S. cropland is farmed organically. Is this due to lack of funding for research into organic methods and seeds that can adapt to or mitigate climate change? Or is funding for research low because interest in organic growing is low?
In recent years, funding increases have averaged 0.2 percent for USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) two organic-specific programs: Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and Organic Transitions (ORG). In March 2016, OREI awarded a series of grants ranging from $50,000 to $2 million (see sidebar). In contrast, the USDA’s major competitive grant program, Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI), has seen a 23 percent funding increase over the same time frame.
An official response from NIFA stated, “Naturally, NIFA wants to see increased funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation, and all areas of agriculture research. Over the years, Congress has increased funding for our flagship competitive grants program, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), and, as a result, our climate change program has benefited from the modest increases. We have a mandated program on specialty crops that accommodates crop responses to climate change. Furthermore, grant applicants have ample opportunities to submit proposals for this topic in many subject areas outside of our primary climate change program.”
In 2015, Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) surveyed organic farmers about research priorities related to climate change. Nationwide, 34 percent of respondents marked research into adaptation and mitigation for fluctuations in temperature and rainfall as a high priority. The Southern region stood out with 42 percent of respondents marking climate fluctuations as a high priority.
OFRF’s Tencer said gaps in adaptation research include:
- Water and soil management to cope with drought and flooding.
- Coping with new insect and weed species.
- Ways to manage fluctuations in chill-time for nuts and fruits crops.
Tencer cited education and outreach on organic methods of adaptation and mitigation as additional areas of need.
The majority of U.S. government-funded research into crop response to climate change is focused on pulses, grains and legumes. How will horticultural crops, like fruits, nuts and vegetables, respond to climate change? Solis called for a systematic approach to research and development. “We just have some pieces here and there, but we need to collect this data and make it available. Climate change will affect every region of the world and every crop differently, so this is a multidimensional problem,” he said.
USDA promotes a diet rich in vegetables, nuts and fruits. So why are research projects into keeping horticultural crops stable and healthy in our changing climate so limited? USDA-NIFA claimed it funded fewer projects on horticulture crops because there were fewer high-quality proposals submitted on that topic.
NIFA considers a high-quality proposal to be one that is sound, innovative, has the potential for significant impact in that particular area of science and meets all criteria outlined in the program’s request for applications.
Bradford is one of the few scientists with the resources to research and develop a horticultural crop that will adapt to the stresses of climate change – in this case, lettuce cultivars. He said granting agencies like to spread the funds around and do not give to California researchers in proportion to the state’s contribution to horticultural crops. (California growers produce about 50 percent of the nation’s vegetables, fruits and nuts.) “This is not due entirely to low-quality grant proposals,” Bradford said.
USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program offers funding for research into organic agriculture. NOFA recently received a small grant to work on best practices across its seven-state region. In addition, a new initiative by NOFA/Mass involves a set of on-farm tests designed to help farmers check in with soil microbial counts and diversity, worm counts, compaction levels, water infiltration competency and other key components of carbon sequestering farming methods. This information, along with other empirical data like yield and crop weight will enable farmers to see if their methods are improving soil health.
Ag and Climate Change Policies, Resources and Information
Pocket guides for preparing smallholder farm families to adapt to climate change:
Read about the OREI grants released in 2016
Details on eligibility and how to submit proposals for NIFA programs
NIFA’s peer review process for grant applications and general writing tips
Will farmer activism change the future?
“[Climate change] is an insidious problem that doesn’t appear acute until it is,” Robertson said. “Farmers in the U.S. are very wary of regulations and fearful that acknowledgment of climate change will create new regulations and new problems.”
Case in point, a statement released in February 2016 by the American Farm Bureau, “recognizes there may be an increase in occurrences of extreme weather.”
In that statement, Farm Bureau questioned whether greenhouse gases (GHGs) are a factor in extreme weather, and stated it is not clear whether increases in extreme weather patterns are due to natural global climate cycles or other factors, such as GHGs. “We do not believe unilateral action by the United States can make a difference on global temperatures or stop devastating weather events.”
The American Farm Bureau is one of many activist organizations created to represent farmers when issues of policy arise.
The National Organic Coalition (NOC) is an alliance of organizations working to provide a voice in Washington, D.C., for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumers and industry members involved in organic agriculture. In 2014, NOC launched an initiative called “Seeds and Breeds” to increase federal research funding for public plant and animal breeding programs at our land grant universities.
Throughout the country, farmers and other concerned citizens have created organizations to give like-minded farmers a voice on important issues.
Whether by sending action alerts, collecting signatures or holding educational conferences, the work of such organizations enables farmers to participate in policy discussions on issues that matter to them without storming governmental agencies.
“It is so valuable for the voice and experiences of organic farmers to be heard directly,” Tencer said.
The voices addressing today’s climate and agriculture policies are numerous, and yours can be one of them. Current policies will likely shape the future of global food security and the future of food security in your region.