An ‘evergreen’ revolution in
ag research

U.S. agricultural research needs to shift gears and focus on climate change both at home and abroad, contends former USDA head Daniel Glickman.

Daniel Glickman
Daniel Glickman

Daniel Glickman was born in Kansas, the state often known as America’s breadbasket, and has been deeply involved in shaping U.S. agriculture policy for the past 40 years. In the 1970s farming and food policy were parochial issues, controlled largely by agricultural interest groups and farm-state legislators. Today these issues are much higher on the national and international political agenda as experts wrestle with the challenge of expanding global food production in a warming world.

Napoleon once said that war is too important to be left to the generals, and it has always struck me that food and agriculture issues are too important to be left to the food and agriculture community.”
—Daniel Glickman

Glickman welcomes that shift. During his stint as U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1995-2001, the agency modernized food safety regulations and forged international trade agreements to expand U.S. markets. Glickman is currently vice president of the Aspen Institute and board chairman of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), a nonprofit corporation created in the 2014 farm bill to raise money for agricultural research on global challenges.

Glickman advocates restructuring U.S. agricultural research programs to focus on climate change and world hunger, which he describes as “the asteroids of the future.” He talked recently with FutureFood 2050 about new agricultural research priorities and other steps to improve global food security for a growing population in a changing climate.

FutureFood 2050: You have called for an “evergreen revolution” in agricultural research, to address the challenge of feeding people sustainably in a changing climate. What are the most serious impacts of climate change on agriculture?

Glickman: The fundamental issues are water availability, sustainable use of water, drought and impacts from all of these stresses on soil fertility. In the United States, long-term drought in the West is affecting crop and livestock production. Other areas are experiencing rainfall episodes that are so heavy the soil can’t absorb all of the water.

In the developing world these issues are 10 times more difficult because there is much less irrigated agriculture, and small farmers have fewer resources to manage the vagaries of weather. These issues require more research into drought-resistant crops, more efficient use of water, and water conservation.

FutureFood 2050: Why has U.S. agricultural research been slow to focus on these problems?

Glickman: The U.S. Department of Agriculture produces a huge amount of research, both in its own laboratories and via funds that it distributes through land-grant colleges and other channels. A lot of this work is very good, but the so-called formula grants to land-grant schools are distributed according to longstanding formulas that are written into federal law. [These awards are now called Capacity Grants.] Only about 10 percent of USDA’s research budget is distributed competitively, unlike most of the research funded by other federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. There’s a lot of duplication and multiple institutions receiving money for similar work.

We shouldn’t necessarily get rid of all formula funding, but there is a lot of discussion in the agricultural community about the need for more peer review and in-depth assessment of the scientific credibility of federally funded agricultural research. Moving in that direction would help to make the case for increasing funding for agricultural research, which has not kept pace with research budgets at other federal agencies.

FutureFood 2050: You’ve advocated for doubling U.S. spending on food and agricultural research over the next decade, which would mean increasing it by about $2.7 billion a year. And you have also pointed out that most public and private investment in agricultural research around the world focuses on crops grown in developed nations, not on the challenges of farming in tropical countries that are vulnerable to drought. Do you think the current Congress will support increased funding for agricultural research and more attention to the needs of farmers in the developing world?

Glickman: The main obstacle is limited resources. And agriculture and food interests have not done as good a job as the health community in highlighting the intensity and seriousness of these issues. But it helps to frame the problem as one of producing enough food for a growing world population, not just as an issue for farmers. There’s good bipartisan support for foreign assistance generally, and the Obama administration has done a good job of focusing on enhancing production and building small-farm agriculture, instead of just treating food aid as a way for the United States to distribute surplus crops. Food security is finally on the agenda at high-level multilateral meetings because it relates to political stability in the developing world.

Napoleon once said that war is too important to be left to the generals, and it has always struck me that food and agriculture issues are too important to be left to the food and agriculture community. These are big, national, comprehensive issues that require a much more comprehensive look, not just actions targeted to traditional agriculture sectors.

FutureFood 2050: In 2012, as a massive drought was destroying crops across much of the Midwest, you wrote that “it is time for American agriculture to acknowledge what is happening, recognize that the long-term future of farmers and ranchers is at stake, and commit to be in the forefront of a rational discussion addressing the challenges” of expanding food production in a climate-constrained world. How urgently do you think U.S. farmers are concerned today about climate change impacts?

Glickman: There is a lot of suspicion in this country, especially among rural populations, about the science of climate change, its connection to weather variability, and the [regulatory] role of the Environmental Protection Agency. But most farmers will tell you that the weather is changing. They may not call it climate, but they will tell you that freezes are coming later, or rainfall is coming in more intense batches, or planting patterns are moving north. They’re not certain about why, and they don’t want some elite telling them, but they also are good businesspeople and have to adapt. Farmers and ranchers need science to help them deal with the vagaries of weather and climate. They’ve been doing it for centuries, but changes are coming more rapidly and intensely today. We need to provide them with crop varieties and growing techniques that will be suited to a warmer and drier world.

FutureFood 2050: Is there a role for major agribusiness companies to play in changing U.S. research priorities?

Glickman: Yes, they have a role. They are doing a lot of research into drought-resistant crops and crops that can be raised with less fertilizer and fewer herbicides. There’s a lot of political controversy around this work because genetically modified organisms [such as plants that have been genetically engineered to increase their resistance to insects] are controversial, but companies also are working on more conventional products.

Are they doing enough? Probably not, but they’re public companies and have to deal with shareholders. That’s why public research dollars are so important in this area. You can’t ask private industry to do it all, because companies have different incentives. You need governments to be involved.

Jennifer Weeks

Jennifer Weeks is a Massachusetts freelance journalist who specializes in environment, science and health. She has written for The Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Audubon, Discover, Slate and many other publications.

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