Innovative Technologies and Practices for the Agriculture Innovation Agenda
Comments to the USDA from The Breakthrough Institute
If the Biden administration faces a split Congress, innovation policy may be the best shot at Congressional action on climate change. Investment in research and development of nascent environmentally-beneficial technologies is vital, but so too is deployment support for more mature technologies that face adoption barriers. In our response to a recent USDA request for stakeholder input, we weighed in on which publicly available agricultural innovations to prioritize for federal deployment support.
Our comments highlight innovations that address agriculture’s major sources of environmental impacts — livestock manure, enteric fermentation, fertilizer use, and soil management. These include:
- anaerobic digesters, composting, and solid separation for improved manure management
- livestock feed additives to reduce enteric fermentation
- biofertilizers, nitrogen and urease inhibitors, and variable-rate input application technologies for improved fertilizer and nutrient management
- biochar and enhanced rock weathering for healthier soil and greater carbon sequestration
These innovations mitigate environmental impacts directly — for example, separating solids from liquid manure can reduce manure’s GHG emissions by almost 40 percent, and nitrification and urease inhibitors can reduce emissions from fertilizer application by roughly the same proportion. And many innovations also reduce emissions indirectly by boosting agricultural productivity and limiting land-use change.
Unfortunately, several barriers to adoption, including cost, information gaps, and risk, stand in the way of these innovations and their full environmental potential. Biofertilizer sales, for example, have experienced only minor growth over the past decade. And while over 8,000 US dairy and swine farms could host anaerobic digesters, there are currently fewer than 300 in operation on livestock farms.
Existing USDA incentive, technical assistance, and research programs can help address these barriers, but the programs would benefit from additional funding and direction that prioritizes manure, enteric fermentation, fertilizer and nutrient, and soil solutions. And to really accelerate the adoption of agricultural innovations, the federal government should consider creating new targeted programs, including a manure transport program and an alternative manure management grant program.