Houlton: Invest in ag research to fight climate change

Agriculture can be a powerful weapon in the battle against climate change, but the U.S. needs a Human Genome Project-like investment in research and development to seize that opportunity, Benjamin Z. Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, testified June 15 to the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.

“If we make significant R&D investments across federal and state agencies to incentivize university public-private partnerships, I envision a future where U.S. agriculture leads in climate solutions – with carbon as a central commodity – to uplift rural communities while producing even better food with fewer environmental impacts,” Houlton said during remarks presented virtually along with written testimony. “Given what we are witnessing today, we know these investments are essential for the U.S. to maintain a competitive advantage from an economic, human health and food-security perspective.”

Benjamin Z. Houlton

During the hearing titled, “The Role of Climate Research in Supporting Agricultural Resiliency,” Houlton, who holds appointments as a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of global development, said the topic both keeps him up at night and motivates him to get up each morning.

He offered three main points:

  • U.S. agriculture leads the world, with recent studies estimating that livestock and crop productivity increased by about 30% from 1997 to 2017, while increasing greenhouse gas emissions by only 7%. From 1977 to 2007, increased efficiencies led to a 16% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef produced in the U.S., according to World Resources Institute estimates. “It’s important to celebrate these advancements and recognize we can do even more to cut emissions, given that agriculture is currently around 11% of total emissions in the United States,” Houlton said.
  • From heat waves to droughts, flooding, pests and pathogens, climate change’s devastating impacts on food production are already being felt. Cornell research has reported a 20% reduction in U.S. grain yields due to climate change – the equivalent of seven years of productivity – losses that could double by 2050. “We need a significant investment in research infrastructure in farming communities to curb additional productivity losses,” Houlton said.
  • Research is needed to advance promising technologies, including anaerobic digesters that convert manure into electricity; no-till and cover cropping practices to increase carbon sequestration and improve soil health; and soil amendments such as biochar, rock dust, and composted food, green waste and manure, which together could sequester 1 billion tons of carbon. Game-changing approaches involving synthetic biology, digital agriculture and AI, and new feed additives are also making progress. “Net-zero or net-negative operations are in reach for farmers and producers,” Houlton said, “creating new jobs, new careers and new forms of revenue.”

Houlton discussed working with farmers, ranchers, Indigenous tribes and others on solutions for removing carbon dioxide that he said are critical to bending the warming curve, including sequestration projects on more than 100 acres of farmland. He cited the Human Genome Project, which Congress established in 1990 and cost about $2.7 billion in 1991 dollars, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Research Institute, as an initiative that sparked the kind of expansive collaboration and breakthroughs needed today.

“What I’m thinking about here is the opportunity for agriculture to not only assist in adapting our food supply (and) promoting food security, but turning carbon into a commodity,” he said in response to a question from Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia, the committee’s chair. “We need to imagine this problem differently than we ever have before.”

In other comments, Houlton also expressed concern that the U.S. has fallen behind China and Brazil in agricultural research funding; highlighted Cornell Cooperative Extension initiatives that are supporting urban farming and controlled environment agriculture in cities across New York state; and identified net-zero dairy farming as an important research opportunity that could support food production while fighting climate change.

“I believe we can make incredible progress on this challenge,” Houlton said.

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