USDA Lays Out Research Roadmap That Will Address Ag Adaptation

February 7, 2020

Those who support efforts to brace agriculture against the threat posed by a changing climate should be encouraged by a research “roadmap” announced by USDA Thursday that lists ag climate adaptation as one five overarching themes that will get the department’s heightened focus over the next five years.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the USDA Science Blueprintwill serve as the department’s vision for and continued commitment to scientific research.

Scott Hutchins, the department’s deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics (REE), said the blueprint prioritizes USDA’s research initiatives around the five themes, enabling scientists “to best conduct critical, long-term, broad-scale science and spur innovation throughout our nation’s agricultural enterprise, natural resource base, and food systems.”

Climate adaptation taking a high profile on the department’s research roadmap is a welcome development, given the resistance in the White House to even acknowledging climate change, much less the threat it poses.

Perdue says the department’s agricultural research “is vital to helping our farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters increase efficiency and productivity, and our science agencies play an integral role in setting forth new visions for innovation through their work.”

Solutions from the Land has long asserted that new and inventive processes and practices must be developed to give producers the best chance to thrive as growing conditions change in the years and decades ahead. It’s a need acknowledged by the blueprint:

“Ensuring that agricultural lands, national forests, and private working lands are conserved and restored makes agriculture production more resilient to climate change and other disturbances such as drought, invasive species, and wildfire. Further, based on the best available science, new strategies and management practices must be developed to allow unmanaged and managed systems to be fully leveraged to mitigate and address climate change. While mitigation is a priority, agricultural systems must nonetheless adapt to the changing weather patterns and temperature regimes to ensure food security.”

Specific climate-related topics to be addressed over the next five years, according to the blueprint, include landscape-scale conservation and management, as well as climate research and resiliency. The document lays out specific objectives that must be met under each of these topics, including objectives, strategies and evidence building.

One objective listed under landscape-scale areas of study is the development of interdisciplinary, integrative systems approaches to address environmental and management challenges and boost productivity and resilience. A strategy goal under the same area embraces the SfL call to prioritize grower input to help develop best-management practices that will actually be used by producers. Evidence building lists methods to show that the best-management practices developed from the research are working.

The department says it is using every resource available to carry out the five-year research plan, going beyond the four REE mission area agencies – the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – to also include the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) and the science arms of the U.S. Forest Service (FS), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The roadmap suggests an ambitious undertaking that can serve as a great aid to growers, who are also developing practices that can mitigate climate change (such as those that retain carbon in the soil). Effort will be required to ensure that the White House requests from Congress funding that can fully carry out USDA’s adaptation research efforts, especially given that this administration has had its issues with federally supported scientists.

Lawmakers in turn will have a huge responsibility to see that these efforts to explore the means to adapt our farms, ranches and forestland to the changing climate are well supported. Stakeholders are urged to reach out to their representatives in Washington and call for the funding needed to develop the practices, systems and tools that will help sustain U.S. growers through uncertain times and enable them to help meet not only future domestic needs, but a 60-percent increase in global food demand by 2050 as well.

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