In July 2021, scientists warned that almost 100 percent of the western part of the United States was experiencing drought, establishing a 122-year record. Just one year earlier, extreme drought conditions in the Czech Republic were declared the worst for the past 500 years.
As a result of climate change, such phenomena are increasingly frequent and are having a wide-ranging impact on the economy on both sides of the Atlantic. Undoubtedly, the agricultural sectors in the EU and the US are experiencing, first-hand, some of the most severe consequences of climate change, perhaps more than any other economic sector.
In the Czech Republic, when the late spring and summer 2020 drought occurred in north western Bohemia, the crop harvest there was 15–20 percent smaller than in 2018 and 2019, both of which were also extremely dry years. In the US, the level of Lake Mead, a huge water reservoir located in Arizona and Nevada, has fallen to unprecedentedly low levels.
“Innovation in agriculture will enable farmers to produce more with less and adapt to increasingly challenging local conditions”
Those states have recently joined a $38m programme to incentivise farmers to leave part of their land unplanted, hoping that could allow the reservoir to replenish at least partially.
These are just a few examples of how, as a result of climate change, farmers in the EU and the US are facing strikingly similar production challenges. Both should urgently strengthen cooperation and develop shared solutions for ensuring that those challenges are dealt with effectively.
It is already clear that there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution available for future-proofing our food system and making it more resilient to climate change. In fact, this will surely require a combination of approaches capable of being adapted to local conditions. However, one thing is beyond doubt: we will not be able to succeed without innovation.
Innovation in agriculture will enable farmers to produce more with less and adapt to increasingly challenging local conditions. New Genomic Techniques (NGTs), such as CRISPR-Cas9, offer a good example of how innovation can help farmers to cope with more extreme environmental conditions - including drought - while reducing chemical agricultural inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers.
The vast majority of the global scientific community agrees on the undoubted potential of NGTs for developing new crop varieties that can grow with reduced water and chemical agricultural inputs. Increasingly, global policymakers are being moved by scientific evidence and pushing to advance forward-looking policies.
The fact that the European Parliament has recently acknowledged the fundamental role that innovative plant breeding techniques can play in delivering the goals of the Farm to Fork Strategy is a welcome development.
However, what if NGTs could not only help farmers to adapt to the new realities of climate change while reducing chemical inputs but could also allow crops to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere? This would make a key contribution towards making agriculture part of the solution to climate change.
Researchers in the US are already working to make this a reality. The Innovative Genomics Institute a joint research collaboration between the University of California, Berkeley and UC San Francisco, has launched four different research projects to develop plant and microbial approaches to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate biological carbon capture.
“The agricultural sectors in the EU and the US are experiencing, first-hand, some of the most severe consequences of climate change, perhaps more than any other economic sector”
Both the EU and the US are exploring ways of promoting carbon farming, taking the first steps to design and implement incentive schemes for farmers to sequester atmospheric carbon. The European Commission is expected to present a “Carbon Farming Initiative” by the end of 2021. The EU and the US should therefore acknowledge the essential role that agricultural innovation - including NGTs - will play in making carbon farming a reality on both sides of the Atlantic.
The above examples show that innovation will drive the shift towards a more sustainable agricultural production system, which will adapt better to challenging production conditions and contribute to climate change mitigation. The EU and the US should join forces and invest more resources in cutting-edge agricultural research, bringing technological innovations ‘to the field’ as quickly as possible, to assist farmers, consumers, the environment and climate.
The recent announcement of a “Transatlantic collaboration platform on agriculture” launched by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and the US Department of Agriculture is a major step in the right direction. We hope that the EU and the US will continue to advance on a transatlantic path together to sustainable agriculture.