REPORT: Farmers on the Front Lines: Agriculture’s Role in Fighting Climate Change

REPORT: Farmers on the Front Lines: Agriculture’s Role in Fighting Climate Change

19 February 2021. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs  and the Farm Journal Foundation offer new recommendations for bold investments in innovation, research, and capacity-building around the world.

Climate change is not just a U.S. problem. Beyond our borders, climate change is hurting the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in developing economies who already live on the brink of vulnerability. These farmers are expected to suffer significant harm in terms of lower crop yields and income as a result of the changing climate. 

  • In Southern Africa between 1961-2000, an increasing frequency of long-term dry spells has been accompanied by a higher intensity in daily rainfall – both of which adversely affect rainfed-agriculture, which accounts for more than 90% of cultivated area across Africa. 
  • Since global investment in agricultural innovation is not keeping pace, many small-scale farmers, especially in Africa, lack access to existing technologies that would help them be more resilient in the face of climate shocks. 
  • For example, as of 2020, only 20% of West African farmers were utilizing improved seed for their crop production. Several studies in Africa also indicate relatively low adoption rates for integrated pest management (IPM), a set of sustainable farming practices that would help farmers address increasing risks from invasive insects, weeds, and crop diseases as the climate changes. As a consequence, developing countries will likely experience greater rates of hunger and malnutrition due to reduced food supplies and/or higher prices.
  • The Administration – through coordination at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy – should incorporate the research recommendations in the SoAR Foundation’s paper, Developing Global Priorities for Plant Research. The paper outlines a number of shovel-ready research projects with the potential to advance progress  to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 through  enhancement of climate models  for biological data, as well as the development of approaches to increase  carbon sequestration in soils.
  • USDA should implement the Climate 21 Project plan to leverage existing resources and authorities to sequester carbon and reduce emissions. The plan reflects recommendations from a vast network of former high-level government officials and will help the incoming Secretary of Agriculture hit the ground running. 
  • The Administration should empower the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Science (CoS) in the Executive Office of the President to work closely with the domestic climate czar to better coordinate and align agricultural research investments across the climate-agricultural research nexus. With the recent encouraging news that the new director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will be a cabinet-level position, this role will be even more critical to build out whole-of-government climate-agricultural research agenda to help achieve net-zero carbon emissions from the U.S. economy by 2050. 
  • The Administration should invest in recruiting and training young agricultural scientists and farmers in both the U.S. and abroad to ensure continuation of the crucial innovation pipeline in the face of the climate crisis and other future challenges. Continued and amplified engagement through land-grant universities is essential to engage youth for a robust future workforce. Current programs such as the Borlaug and Cochran fellowships and AgriCorps should receive fully authorized appropriations levels and tie future work to the climate challenge. 
  • Congress should encourage USDA, in coordination with local universities and the private sector, to create a pilot program to provide for the inclusion of a private sector mentorship program. Most jobs in the emerging agri-food industry will be in the private sector. Private-sector research plays an irreplaceable role, and career paths into research and other innovation careers in the private sector are needed to keep the field robust. 
  • Using the model of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) fellowship program, a program should be created to reflect the rising need for business and private-sector knowledge by the agriculture community. The program should identify rising young stars in agriculture sciences at prominent universities in developing countries and match them with U.S. private-sector companies to form a yearlong distance mentorship program

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