Tools like gene editing and automated farm equipment along with better Internet service are essential technological developments that can influence the livelihoods of American farmers. According to the US Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, agtech innovations are a key means by which to improve business and life for rural Americans.
Legislative, regulatory, and policy changes can “unleash the potential and ingenuity of rural communities,” according to a new report from the task force, chaired by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, evaluating and proposing strategies for economic development in rural America. The task force brings together representatives from over twenty federal agencies, focused on six areas in addition to agriculture: economic development, job growth, infrastructure, technological innovation, energy security, and quality of life.
Agricultural technologies, especially biotechnologies, are key factors in building more productive farms, the report concludes. Farmers have adopted tools like automated farm equipment, farm management software and sensing technologies, and satellite and aerial imaging in the past 20 years, but there is substantial room for growth in the sector.
In the past 30 years, agricultural productivity in the United States has increased by nearly 50%, in part due to technological interventions. But American farmers stand to benefit from increased investment in research, development and implementation. Not only does increasing the productivity of American farmland contribute to rural prosperity, but global trends like growing populations and rising incomes demand more food, faster.
Biotechnology will be a critical tool in what the report calls ‘the fourth industrial revolution.’
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Currently, biotech crops are grown on over 170 million acres of American farmland, accounting for 92% of corn, soybean, and cotton crops. The task force found that regulations hinder the commercialization of many biotech applications.
‘The US needs research and development, as well as a regulatory system that promotes rather than discourages innovation and discovery,’ reads the report.
Finding the right regulatory balance between guaranteeing safety and transparency and allowing ample room for growth and developing will determine the future of the industry. The task force acknowledges that biotechnologies are particularly contested within the industry and in the public eye, making modernizing its surrounding regulatory framework to focus on transparency, predictability, and public confidence is a top priority. While the report supports federal regulation of biotechnology, it calls for a framework that encourages investment of private capital and expedites commercialization.
Getting Rural America Online
For agriculture (and other industries), economic development hinges on better internet connections across rural America. In 2014, 39% of rural Americans had broadband too slow to support their needs—the national average is 10%.
Limited access prevents farmers from taking advantage of digital tools to manage finances or monitor international markets. “The economic equalizer of our day is high-speed internet,” reads the report. Increasing access to high-speed internet, though, won’t come cheap.
Rather than relying on federal funds to support new infrastructure, the report suggests a revision of federal regulations. By making it easier for service providers to build coverage, agencies and legislators can encourage investment from private capital. Whether through providing companies access to existing broadband infrastructure or encouraging a “technology-neutral” approach (where all means of connectivity are exploited, rather than just wired networks alone), the report argues that the private sector will guarantee the fastest implementation at the lowest cost.
Following a speech at the American Farm Bureau annual convention last week, President Trump signed an executive order that paves the way for companies to locate broadband infrastructure on federal lands and buildings. Providing better ‘access to tower facilities,’ Trump said, would be a game changer for rural Americans.
Critics suggest the problem isn’t limited access to infrastructure, but poor incentives to develop costly networks in remote areas with dwindling populations.
According to Gizmodo, the $25 billion that Trump has committed won’t be enough to solve the rural connectivity issue. Some estimates say $80 billion in infrastructure investment is required to bring rural communities in line with the rest of the US.