In the heart of America’s cattle country, researchers are working to breed grasses that will survive drought. In West Virginia, scientists are studying the impacts of climate change on bees that pollinate crops. In Kansas, agronomists are trying to understand how soil can better capture and store heat-trapping carbon.
Along with thousands of projects funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this research is aimed at helping farmers adapt to a warming climate. But it’s also geared toward keeping American farmers productive and profitable—and this economic importance could mean it gets spared from the cuts to research expected during the Trump administration’s assault on climate science.
“Ag research is directly tied to its well-being,” said Gale Buchanan, a former undersecretary for research, education and economics at the agency under the George W. Bush administration. “You’d think it’d be less vulnerable.”
Farmers, increasingly, are grappling with the climate change crisis, from drought to extreme downpours to excessive heat. While some question the causes of climate change or prefer the politically neutral terms “weather extremes” or “variability,” few dispute that their long-term survival depends on robust science.
The Trump administration has sent unmistakable signals that any agency that conducts climate change research can expect cuts to those programs. But the agriculture industry, which traditionally leans Republican, is making its case for more public research funding. Good science, it insists, represents the only way to produce enough food for a growing global population.
The industries and voters standing to benefit from agricultural research also happen to be among those that largely backed Trump.
“The farm community and rural America—which is, after all, one of the major groups that elected this president—are bullish on the science of agriculture,” said Tom Grumbly, president of Supporters of Agriculture Research, or SoAR. “They recognize that we need to be making investments as a society in this area.”
The agency’s research arm, the Research, Education and Economics division, had a budget of $2.9 billion in 2015, and the agency estimates at least 22 percent, or $656 million, went to climate change-specific research between 2009 and 2015. In 2015, the division supported the publication of 20,000 research papers and its work brought in nearly $2.2 billion in additional funding from other sectors.
But it’s almost impossible to tease out how much of the agency’s work is actually helping farmers cope with climate change because much of it is spread across programs or has indirect climate benefits.
“So much of our research is related to climate, even though it’s not labeled as such,” Buchanan said. “Indirectly it’s related to climate and weather.”
Farmers Grapple with Variability
Farmers in Nebraska looked out their windows and saw driving rain last Christmas morning, not snow. This month, massive fires charred hundreds of thousands of rangeland acres in the Southwest. In coming years, farmers in the Pacific Northwest expect climate conditions to change so radically that parts of their state will look more like California’s abundant but drought-plagued Central Valley.
Over the past decade, farmers across the U.S. have battled against crippling drought, aberrant rainfall, lack of snowfall or all three. The spring planting season comes earlier and the last frost, later. The weather has become so unpredictable and so uneven that a farmer can experience perfect conditions while his neighbor, not so far away, might suffer a crop-depleting season.
“We were in a drought when most of the Midwest had plenty of rainfall,” said Michael Kucera, a farmer and USDA agronomist from Lincoln, Neb., speaking at an agriculture conference in Washington last month. “I don’t know about a changing climate. But we do have variability.”
Variability is one of the politically palatable terms farmers use to describe what they’re coping with, even if they don’t accept humans are the force behind it. In farm country, climate and change in tandem can be considered dirty words. But variability is a fact—one they need help addressing.
“You can think what you want about climate change,” said Grumbly. “My pitch to the farm and environmental and Congressional communities is: Let’s worry about the substance of what we’re doing so your kids and grandkids live in a world where everyone’s not angry with us because they don’t have anything to eat.”
Climate Change at USDA
Though the challenges posed by weather have been central to agricultural research for hundreds, even thousands, of years, the notion of climate change within the top rungs of USDA started taking hold in the second George W. Bush administration. Despite its lack of support for climate action, the administration launched the agency’s Climate Change Program Office, which coordinates climate research across all of USDA’s programs.
That research became more of a priority under the Obama administration, which tucked specific language into agency missions and budget requests. Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack launched a number of climate research programs, including the USDA’s “Climate Hubs”—a network of seven regional centers where researchers share data that farmers can use to make their farms more productive.
The administration made climate change research a focus within two of the four major research arms of the agency—the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). (Those two programs take up the bulk of the agency’s $2.9 billion in discretionary funding spent on research.)
Since 2009, the Agricultural Food and Research Initiative, run by NIFA, has handed out $150 million toward research aimed at minimizing the impacts of climate change on agriculture.
The Agricultural Research Service, the agency’s in-house research wing, conducts around 750 research projects at a given time, looking at ways to capture soil carbon, climate-related plant disease and breeding more sustainable crops.
The agency also maintains a huge amount of data related to climate change, including a greenhouse gas inventory, a snowpack network, a soil climate analysis network and water availability network. Its Natural Resources Conservation Service maintains a soil carbon inventory, has given out grants for greenhouse gas mitigation projects and runs programs that pay farmers to set aside farmland for conservation.
Farm Groups Argue for More Federal Money
Money dedicated to agricultural research has declined as a percentage of total federal research funding over the past 40 years—from roughly 6.5 percent to 3.5 percent. That’s largely because, critics say, Congressional appropriators seem to have agreed that the advances of the Green Revolution in the 1960s meant agricultural innovation had reached a zenith. At the same time, private sector research has climbed, which some critics say means less research is being done for the common good of all farmers.
Now groups, including those that represent conservative commodity interests, are renewing calls for more federal funding, citing variability and extreme weather as a major challenge. The next Farm Bill, the sprawling legislation that funds the USDA’s farm and nutrition programs, is up for renewal in 2018 and conversations among lawmakers and agriculture groups have already begun.
“When budget times are tough, it’s easy to take a significant slice out of the research budget because you don’t feel the impact right away,” said Grumbly, whose group recently hit Capitol Hill to plead its case. “What we’re trying to do is beat the drum about the importance of this research so it’s not mindlessly reduced.”
The agency also had a conservation budget of $6.3 billion in 2016. But the USDA doesn’t categorize any of that funding as “climate change funding” because conservation programs have a variety of environmental impacts, not just climate benefits.
Climate change-related work and research is so embedded in the sprawling agency’s programs and so baked into its mission that it could be difficult, ultimately, to disentangle it.
Anxiety Ripples Through Ag Research
Still, researchers both within and outside the agency are jittery. The agency has had about $25 billion in discretionary spending in the past few years—the bucket that research funding comes from—and President Trump has said he wants a $54 billion increase in defense and law enforcement spending. If Congress agrees, that money will have to come from somewhere.
Charles Rice, a Nobel Prize-winning professor of agronomy at Kansas State University and chair of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, recently received two major USDA research grants, both related to the impacts of climate change.
“There’s a huge effort in measuring and trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, whether it’s livestock or soils. There are land grant university collaborators. The USDA and the climate change office has taken leadership in international networks,” Rice said. “How will these programs fare under the new administration? We don’t know, but there’s some anxiety.”
The agency is currently without a secretary as former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue awaits confirmation, and whatever budget the agency proposes for the new administration this year, it likely won’t reflect the agency’s new priorities.
“Next year it’s going to be a lot more interesting,” said John Goldberg, a former science adviser to the House Agriculture Committee.
But in the meantime, researchers and programs might contemplate a piece of advice.
“If it has the words climate change,” Rice wondered, “Just rename it?”