By Leanna Sweha
There has been extensive discussion about climate change and the agri-food system, including in the Green New Deal resolution, which was introduced last month in both the House and Senate.
The discussion raises goals for the agri-food system we can all agree upon: climate resilience, healthy food, economic stability, and a sustainable environment.
In the next election cycle we will likely see proposals, including under the rubric of a Green New Deal, for new federal programs to promote these goals.
But, sometimes, it’s instructive to look at what is already on the books.
In this case, I would argue it’s essential. Because, we already have the federal innovation and entrepreneurship programs in place to help achieve climate resilience and sustainability in the agri-food system. We just need to massively ramp them up.
The agri-food system faces serious challenges – soil degradation, water and air pollution, water scarcity, product quality and safety recalls, labor issues, pesticide and herbicide resistance, and increasing weather variability. Farmers, ranchers and the rest of the players in the agri-food value chain are eager to solve these problems with innovative practices and new technology.
At the same time, advances in agronomy and synthetic biology, and also in digital, automated and precision technology, are disrupting US agriculture.
Ramping up federal innovation and entrepreneurship programs will speed up the development, commercialization and adoption of these disruptive practices and technology.
First, we should ramp up support for ag research and extension. The USDA and land-grant universities perform the bulk of the basic and applied research that undergirds our understanding of agricultural systems. Land-grant extension agents translate this knowledge into actionable practices for farmers and ranchers.
Land-grant ag research and extension relies heavily on federal dollars, but federal funding has stagnated and lags way behind funding in other sectors, like medicine.
Second, we should ramp up the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs in agriculture. SBIR and STTR are the largest source of critical early-stage grant funding for startups that are commercializing federally-funded innovation. This includes a commercialization assistance program that helps grant recipients with one-on-one strategic planning, development and commercialization training.
Federal agencies direct only about three percent of their research and development budgets to SBIR and STTR. By ramping up funding here, more startups can bridge the gap between research and commercialization.
This, in turn, will leverage more investment by private sector corporations and foundations, which perform or fund an increasing amount of agricultural research and development, much of it in partnership with universities like the land-grants.
Third, we should ramp up the federal Regional Innovation Strategies (RIS) Program, that covers operational costs of organizations that help agtech startups build and scale, as well as attract and promote new investment in agtech.
While seed and venture capital investment in agtech startups has increased over the last five years, it is still small compared to other sectors. Organizations that help startups mature and attract new investment are critical right now. Many promising startups are close to being investment-ready and need an infusion of funds to stay afloat.
A new RIS grant holds promise for agtech startups in my region. The California State University Fresno Foundation will launch a regional investment fund with the goal of increasing seed capital investment in agtech startups in California’s Central Valley, which is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, but also one of the nation’s poorest.
Finally, we should ramp up support for farmers and ranchers who want to adopt sustainable practices and technology. One of the most important things we can do here is to ramp up the USDA broadband program to build-out high speed internet access across rural America. New technologies that rely on cloud computing to connect workers, sensors, drones, and tractors with real-time data and analysis are useless where there is no or slow internet.
Innovative practices and technology in agriculture will increase consumer access to nutritious food produced with less negative environmental and social impact. Family farms and farm workers will be able to earn a greater percentage of the consumer dollar. The benefits will multiply when when we export new technology to other countries.
We can achieve a climate-resilient and sustainable agri-food system by ramping up investment in federal innovation and entrepreneurship programs. This may not sound revolutionary, but it will accelerate a revolution in agriculture.
Leanna Sweha, JD is the Program Director for AgStart, an agtech and foodtech startup incubator in the Sacramento region.