USDA awards over $4.7M to support 'climate-smart' food production

a press conference on the roof of ENR2 overlooking the city of Tucson

USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Gloria Montaño Greene (at podium), Tucson Mayor Regina Romero (right) and others gathered Tuesday morning under solar panels on the ENR2 building rooftop to announce a nearly $4.8 million USDA grant that will support and promote 'climate-smart' food production. The project is led by the University of Arizona, and partners include the University of Maryland and three Arizona nonprofits.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

In arid Arizona, groundwater pumping and the transportation of river water generate more carbon emissions than any other agricultural activities in the state. University of Arizona researchers are working to help farmers tackle that challenge and to build a more resilient food future that relies less on water and more on native crops.

The UArizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have teamed up with the University of Maryland and three Arizona nonprofits – Tucson City of Gastronomy, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Local First Arizona – to form the Arizona Partnership for Climate-Smart Food Crops, announced Tuesday.

The three-year project, funded by over $4.7 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will focus on promoting climate-smart food production practices and helping farmers reduce water consumption and carbon emissions.

"While the climate challenges that Arizona faces can seem daunting, our researchers are among the world's best in water, agriculture and many other areas related to climate resilience. We are committed to ensuring the farmers and people of Arizona have the tools they need to adapt, and this project is a perfect illustration of that," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "By coming together to study and implement the most climate-smart tools we have, we can ensure future in which we all thrive."

Gary Nabhan

Gary Nabhan

The University of Arizona

Arizona is one of the highest water users per acre for agriculture in any state, and pumping all that water across the state also has energy costs, said project principal investigator Gary Nabhan, a research social scientist in the UArizona Southwest Center and the Kellogg Endowed Chair in Southwestern Borderlands Food and Water Security.

"We are prepared to help farmers reduce their input costs and increase the value of their crops," he said.

The USDA grant will also fund the promotion and marketing of farmers' climate-smart products in ways that will increase farmers' return on investments in new agricultural practices.

"None of this matters if the farmers can't market their crops," Nabhan said.

The grant also allows the project team to use commercial test kitchens to identify culinary qualities of climate-smart crops, conduct consumer research, promote a desert seed-to-table program, and advance retail market development and a consumer awareness campaign.

Earlier this year, the USDA opened applications for projects to support America's climate-smart farmers, ranchers and forest landowners. The University of Arizona was one of the lead partners on this USDA initiative, said Gloria Montaño Greene, deputy undersecretary for farm production and conservation at the USDA, during a Tuesday UArizona news conference announcing the new partnership.

"(The University of Arizona is) joining a network that will be serving over 60,000 farms – 25 million acres – to be able to work on climate-smart production practices," said Montaño Greene, who is a UArizona alumna. "We are going to be reducing more than 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the lives of these projects … which is like removing 12 million gas-powered vehicles from the road in one year. We know that agriculture is part of the solution."

Creative solutions for a resilient future

Greg Barron-Gafford

Greg Barron-Gafford

Chris Richards, The University of Arizona

"There are many ways we can be more climate-smart about how we produce food," said Greg Barron-Gafford, co-principal investigator on the grant and professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment. "This grant represents an investment in multiple ways of elevating climate-smart food production across Arizona and the drylands of the United States and beyond."

The best path forward for long-term reduction of agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions in the arid Southwest is twofold, said Barron-Gafford, who is also a Biosphere 2 research scientist. By growing water-efficient crops, farmers can reduce their reliance on irrigation water and the fossil fuels used to pump it. Farmers can also generate and use on-farm renewable energy through innovations like agrivoltaics, in which solar panels are used to create shade over and around crops to reduce evaporation, while the crops cool the panels to make them more energy-efficient.

"These methods will reduce those emissions while also providing farmers with supplemental income or reduced production costs," he said.

Barron-Gafford and his collaborators recognize that the project incorporates traditional Indigenous practices such as agroforestry, which involves growing shade-providing trees over vegetable crops that are more vulnerable to heat and light stress. This is a practice that Indigenous peoples have used for millennia, but the team will explore how these principles can be applied through agrivoltaics to create a more resilient food future. 

"As a desert city with tribal communities that hold thousands of years of traditional agricultural knowledge, it is fitting to have projects to promote climate-smart food production practices," Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said during Tuesday's news conference announcing the partnership. "The pandemic exposed so much in terms of societal concerns and how fragile our food supply systems are. Increasing our food resiliency with foods that are climate-smart could not be more timely."

The researchers also will study how intermixing crops, through a technique called strip cropping, can prevent soil erosion. And they will focus on providing farmers with more native seeds that can survive the climate and water scarcity conditions predicted over the next few decades.

"We aim to anticipate what climate conditions and water scarcity conditions farmers are likely to face over the next 30 years and help them access seeds that can survive not only that amount of drought and water stress but also the heat that they'll be subject to," Nabhan said.

The researchers also hope to promote smarter water harvesting techniques, like using solar panels to direct and collect rain runoff, so that farmers don't have to rely so heavily on irrigation.

"What's really exciting about this grant is that it's not just about the physical science of how to grow more food. It's not just about the social science of where the knowledge around food production comes from and how to translate it, and it's not just about working with Indigenous communities to shout out the great work they've been doing for generations," said Barron-Gafford. "It's also about working with people who are actively trying to promote dryland, climate-smart food as a mainstream way of pivoting in our food system and actually making it happen."

UArizona is ranked second in the U.S. and sixth in the world for its water resources program, according to Shanghai Ranking's Global Ranking of Academic Subjects. And earlier this month, Robbins announced the formation of the Presidential Advisory Commission on the Future of Agriculture and Food Production in a Drying Climate, which will provide recommendations on concrete steps the university can take to make Arizona a global leader in creating and applying transformational technologies and climate-resilient sustainable agriculture and food production practices.

"Indeed, the University of Arizona is uniquely positioned to address this complex, pressing challenge, bringing to bear the breadth and depth of our research expertise," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, UArizona senior vice president for research and innovation. "We are serious about being in the game of producing solutions for the next century."

"This is a very important achievement on the part of the University of Arizona and everyone associated it. The money will be used to look at integrating what needs to be integrated in our fight with climate change," U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva said at Tuesday's news conference. "I'm proud of all the partners, the city of Tucson, the university, the departments involved and certainly the USDA for having the foresight to look forward and not take a step backwards on this fight on climate."