At a certain point, we have to wonder how much more the global food system can take.
Historic flooding in Pakistan. Droughts across the American West. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The global food system and the supply chains that have long allowed us to move food from where it is grown to where it is needed have rarely been stretched so thin, or so far.
The consequences can be seen in the cost and availability of food in most parts of the world, including in the United States. Americans’ growing demand for fresh produce will only accelerate our reliance on an increasingly fragile food system.
However, the story of this decade doesn’t have to be one of scarcity and strain. A different future is within reach: one of abundance, affordability, and sustainability. The U.S. has a historic opportunity to shorten supply chains, safeguard long-term food security, and decrease the environmental costs of agriculture. Innovation can make this possible–but only if America invests in new farming technologies. Not only to feed ourselves but to reaffirm our role as the world’s greatest exporter of both food and innovation.
Unless you’re in the industry, you might not know that agriculture is undergoing a quiet technological revolution. Drones, sensors, and satellite imaging systems help farms manage crops more effectively with more information and knowledge than ever before. Amid labor shortages, farmers are looking to robotics and automation to fill the gap. Artificial intelligence is now used to monitor soil, control pests, and improve overall yield. These and other advances are enabling the industry to rethink its most basic assumptions: how we grow, what we grow, and how we transport what we grow.
For example, recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, computer vision, and sensor and control systems have allowed our company, Bowery, to grow fresh, local, pesticide-free in large-scale, smart indoor environments with crops stacked from floor to ceiling. This approach, powered by renewable energy, uses significantly less land and water. It’s a sustainable model that works irrespective of changing climate conditions or severe weather events.
Vertical farms can be built just about anywhere. But by putting them near the markets we serve, we can radically shorten the supply chain–decreasing disruptions and the environmental costs of long-haul shipping, and increasing the resilience of the food system overall.
Many Americans have probably eaten vertically farmed products without realizing how differently they’re grown. But vertical farming is only part of the broader transformation that the world must undertake. With the global population projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, and with the climate crisis worsening, we need to produce more food, more sustainably. This will require collective effort–and collective investment.
Much like crops on a farm, a business requires the right inputs to grow. Great ideas, upfront capital, and a commitment at the state and local levels enable businesses to thrive. But for a cutting-edge industry to flourish and have a national and even global impact, the federal government has a key role to play as an accelerator of innovation.
Think of solar energy in the 1990s or electric vehicles in the early 2000s. The promise was evident. But these innovations could not have become the transformative, ubiquitous technologies they are today absent national investments in research and development, infrastructure, workforce training, and manufacturing–and without appropriate tax incentives.
Agriculture is poised to become the next great success story of sustainable innovation–as foreign governments increasingly recognize. For example, the Netherlands–the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter–has invested in new growing technology and cell-based meat production. Small, land-poor states like Singapore and the UAE, as well as massive countries such as Russia and China, are working to build food systems that can withstand the changing climate and reduce their reliance on tumultuous trade relationships.
The U.S. must do the same. The global challenges of climate change and food insecurity will accelerate the development of new farming technologies everywhere humans live and eat. America has an opportunity to lead this revolution and to spread the benefits around the world. As a matter of foreign policy and economic policy, the new Congress must act.
In 2023, Congress will reauthorize the farm bill, as it does every five years. No legislation says more about the importance we assign agriculture. This time, the bill should help accelerate the technological advances underway, increasing domestic food production, and strengthening the supply chain. The farm bill should also prioritize workforce development, preparing the next generation to pursue careers in high-tech farming and positioning our research institutions, land-grant universities, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities as hubs of agricultural innovation.
Last year, to strengthen domestic manufacturing, a bipartisan majority in Congress doubled the research and development tax credit for qualified businesses and created an investment tax credit for the semiconductor industry. Congress must take the same approach to agriculture.
Recently, all 50 members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture–both Republicans and Democrats–unanimously endorsed investment tax credits as one way to help scale indoor farming, given its high upfront capital expenditures. Such a policy should also apply to outdoor specialty crop growers, who face similar capital costs as they upgrade their approach with robotics and automation.
From the steel plow to the gas-powered tractor to new breeding technologies, American innovation has led to advances in agriculture that have benefited the entire world.
Both our potential and the imperative to fulfill it have never been stronger. Congress must do more than improve the current system–it must invest in the future of food.
Irving Fain is the founder and CEO of Bowery.
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