David Green, Executive Director of the U.S. Sustainability Alliance, highlights agricultural innovation and its challenges, including how the USDA’s NIFA is supporting this policy area
We are only eight harvests away from 2030 – the year set by the United Nations to achieve zero hunger. Goal 2 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 is to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. (1) Meeting such a goal is likely to be even more of a challenge given that after steadily declining for a decade, world hunger is on the rise, affecting 9.9% of people globally. (2) A major factor in rising to that challenge will be how to adopt new food production technologies.
As 2030 nears, many governments, industries, civil society, and even consumers appear to be increasingly concerned about how to boost food production and food security. And to do so sustainably. Much focus is understandably fixated on coping with climate change, the ongoing reduction in farmable land, and recovering from the pandemic. However, an equally urgent challenge is to reset current perceptions of agricultural technology.
In developed countries, farmers have adopted innovation and technology to make agriculture one of the most efficient and effective production systems in the world. However, modern agriculture is often pilloried as a problem and named and shamed as industrialised or uncontrolled factory farming driven by multinational technology corporations.
Promoting an understanding
The key to a reset in thinking is to foster a better understanding of agricultural research, discovery and application. Past and more recent history is littered with examples of where innovative research – artificial insemination, mechanisation, transgenic crops – struggled for acceptance once the outcomes were commercialised. Fears about upsetting the status quo, safety issues, monopolisation, can slow or bar much-needed technology. Such misgivings raise the paradox of whether the risks and costs of no technological innovation outweigh the risks and costs of harnessing innovation. Dealing with such a paradox will require a shift in societal thinking to minimise the oft-held perception that innovation equals risk.
Translating research into reality
Farming in the United States is often portrayed as large-scale with farmers only too eager to grab the latest innovation. However, 98% of America’s farms are family-owned and when these farmers do embrace new technology, it is only once they are convinced it is safe for them, their families and their land and that it will help them to farm better. To support their decision-making, they have access to a wide range of research and advisory services through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies which help translate research into practical reality.
For example, the Cooperative Extension Service, set up in 1914 and now with offices in, or near, more than 3,000 counties across the country, helps farmers improve their knowledge of the research and technology developments that could be potentially available. The CES partners with the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) in its research and outreach efforts.
NIFA recently invested $7.5 million in 15 research grants to help develop beneficial insects and microbes that have the potential to combat crop pests. Such research is geared to innovative, environmentally-sound strategies to manage agricultural pests and beneficial species. For example, two of the 2022 research-funded projects seek to develop nematode resistance in potatoes while another aims to map the genome of the Pandora pine moth to identify population shifts of this pest which can devastate forests.
NIFA sees its mission as propelling “cutting-edge discoveries from research laboratories to farms, classrooms, communities and back again”. (3) For Nebraska farmer Brandon Hunnicutt, innovations over the past thirty years have helped him grow more with less impact through advances in drought and pest-resistant seed varieties and precision agricultural technology. The essential task in front of all of us, he writes in Agri-Pulse, is to unlock the next suite of innovations to ensure we continue to yield equal value for farmers and nature. He believes that progress and ultimate success in dealing with climate challenges lie in learning together, mobilising more capital to support farmers in the transition and pursuing solutions that create wins for farmers, business, society and the planet. (4)
In line with Brandon Hunnicutt’s vision, the USDA recently launched a $1 billion Partnerships for Climate- Smart Commodities programme. (5) It will finance pilot projects that create market opportunities for commodities produced using climate-smart practices and that include innovative, cost-effective ways to measure and verify greenhouse gas benefits.
If Goal 2 is to be reached in the next eight years, it will need research and innovation at its best to help meet food security across the world. Yet, that best might not be enough without corresponding advances in societal understanding to avoid risk-averse fears of what might be new but is most definitely needed.
- (1) Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E
- (2) World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics 2021. https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics
- (3) NIFA.https://nifa.usda.gov/program/agriculture-and-food-research-initiative-afri
- (4) Agri-Pulse, February 2022. https://www.agri-pulse.com/articles/17190-opinion-to-solve-the-climate-crisis-we-must-share-in-the-risk-and-the-reward
- (5) https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2022/02/07/usda-invest-1-billion-climate-smart-commodities-expanding-markets
NIFA advancing agriculture in the U.S.
NIFA, part of the USDA, in essence, supplies funding and leadership for programmes that push forward agriculture-related sciences. (1)
For example, in February 2022 we discover that NIFA invests no less than $14 million for AFRI’s Plant Breeding and Cultivar Development programmes. AFRI is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) that finances vital research towards the release of better crop varieties. “Research to develop improved crop varieties helps to protect the livelihoods of farmers, conserve natural resources, and provide safe and abundant sources of food, fuel, and fiber,” the NIFA website reveals. (2)
The above is just one of many fitting examples concerning how NIFA supports and invests in initiatives that make certain the long-term viability of agriculture. Let’s also be mindful that an integrated approach will ensure that revolutionary discoveries in agriculture technology and science will reach the individuals who can put them into practice.
Editor's Recommended Articles
Must Read >> Gene-edited crops are not GMOs 2.0
Must Read >> Providing Food: The answer lies in the soil