Policy Update: AFT Submits Research and Technology Recommendations to Agriculture Innovation Agenda - American Farmland Trust

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Policy Update: AFT Submits Research and Technology Recommendations to Agriculture Innovation Agenda

On Saturday, August 1st, AFT submitted public comments to inform the development of USDA’s new Agriculture Innovation Agenda. The Agenda is the Department’s plan to halve agriculture’s environmental footprint by 2050 while simultaneously increasing production by 40%, mainly through research and technology advances. This is a department-wide effort to provide farmers with the support, programs, and research they need to meet the agricultural demands of the future. 

In their request for public comments, USDA asked for industry and non-profit stakeholders to identify the greatest challenges and opportunities in achieving the Agenda’s twofold goal. AFT’s comments contain twelve recommendations, and primarily focus on two areas. First, on research and technology advances that will help make conservation practices – such as cover crops and no-till – less risky, more convenient, and more profitable. This includes innovations such as improved cover crop varieties and making conservation equipment more accessible to all farmers. AFT’s second focus was on increasing the body of knowledge regarding the environmental and social impacts of conservation practices and farmland protection, such as an improved understanding of agricultural carbon sequestration and the public benefits of farmland preservation.  

The comments state that reaching the goal of increased production while decreasing the environmental footprint will require protection of our nation’s most productive, versatile, and resilient (PVR) agricultural lands, and greater adoption of conservation practices. It also calls on the Department to focus on the needs of farmers, and to engage in a farmer-focused, “bottom up” approach that recognizes the fundamental diversity of American agriculture. Finally, the comments underscore that any change in the agricultural landscape will require outreach and specialized technical assistance to farmers and ranchers. 

AFT’s recommendations are summarized below (the full comments can be found here): 

Conservation Practice Research: 

  1. Research the ability of conservation practices to sequester atmospheric carbon into agricultural soils
    1. Determine the rate and magnitude of carbon sequestration from agricultural conservation practices 
    2. Develop standardized research protocols for determining rates of soil carbon sequestration, such as preferred soil sampling depth, timing, and methods 
  2. Study the effects of conservation practices on environmental, social, and economic outcomes
    1. Research the relationship between conservation practices and environmental benefits, including the effects of stacked practices such as the use of both no-till and cover crops 
    2. Engage in continuous improvement and calibration of outcome quantification and decision support tools like COMET-Farm, especially at the watershed level 
    3. Determine the various economic impacts of conservation practices 
  3. Research the risk-reduction benefits of conservation practices
    1. Examine the risk-reduction benefits of conservation practices to enable insurance companies to more accurately account for them within rate structures 

Land Use Research:

  1. Examine the climate, environmental, and social benefits of permanent farm and ranchland protection
    1. Research the climate effects of land protection, including building on AFT’s “Greener Fields” studies on the connections between land protection, compact development, and avoided GHG emissions 
    2. Determine the economic and social benefits of farmland protection, such as the value provided by cultural and educational opportunities, or flooding mitigation 
  2. Study systems that beneficially integrate solar energy and agricultural land
    1. Identify farming systems that allow solar use without displacing agriculture, including identifying shade-tolerant crops and animal species that integrate well with solar panels 
    2. Determine the hydrologic impacts of solar panels, and improve solar array design so that the land can be more easily shared with crops or livestock 

Agronomic and Soil Research: 

  1. Support further research on improved crop varieties and best management practices to support conservation practices
    1. Develop cover crops that are less risky, and more convenient to plant and terminate, such as by developing self-terminating or delayed-germination varieties
    2. Develop additional perennial grain crops 
    3. Research additional double crop systems that cover the soil all year long, and allow farmers to harvest two crops instead of one, such as “cash cover crops” like camelina  
  2. Conduct research examining the complex relationships between plants and the soil microbiome
    1. Research the microbiome, and the potential of biofertilizers to allow farmers to increase crop resilience and yield while reducing their reliance on traditional inputs

Social Science Research: 

  1. Improve information-gathering for the Census of Agriculture, TOTAL Survey, and National Resources Inventory
    1. Integrate existing data sources, such as the Census of Agriculture and FSA data, to allow data stacking 
    2. Update the TOTAL survey and expand the Natural Resources Inventory  
  2. Conduct research on the best ways to encourage conservation and regenerative practice adoption
    1. Examine which policy and financial incentives are the most effective at encouraging conservation practice adoption
    2. Examine which forms of outreach and engagement are the most effective  

Product and Technology Development: 

  1. Develop affordable, accessible, scale-neutral conservation equipment
    1. Develop easily accessible implements for reduced tillage, cover crop implementation, non-chemical crop termination, etc.
    2. Incentivize crop diversification by developing machinery that can be used for multiple crops with only minimal alternations, and make all-electric vehicles more accessible 
  2. Improve sensing technology to allow for fast and accurate data collection
    1. Develop affordable, rapid, onsite, accurate sensors for soil and water testing 
  3. Advance technology for sustainable livestock management 
    1. Research natural, non-antibiotic feed additives to reduce the methane production of livestock 
    2. Improve virtual fencing technology so that it works on a variety of landscapes, and is accessible and affordable

AFT appreciates the opportunity to contribute to USDA’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda and looks forward to our continued participation in the process. 

About the Author
Emily Liss

Farm Viability Policy Manager


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