Advocates push Congress on technology against climate change

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2020

Farmers continue to be scared off from advanced technology that could help reduce the effects of climate change while making them money in the long run, witnesses told a congressional panel yesterday.

At a House Small Business subcommittee hearing, experts said farmers could take advantage of more cutting-edge practices in conservation and carbon sequestration but are reluctant to take on short-term risk for what might be long-term rewards. That’s holding back opportunities for agriculture to play a bigger role in climate mitigation, they said.

“Farmers are entrepreneurs. If it was that compelling, why are we seeing only 2 and 3 and 4% of all American farmers doing those things?” said David Potere, head of geo-innovation at Boston-based Indigo Agriculture, a company that develops digital technology for agriculture and sells natural microbiology products to boost production and retain soil carbon.

A combination of risk and lack of know-how among farmers is a barrier that Congress should look to help farmers overcome, Potere said. Regenerative agriculture — a mix of conservation and other practices — makes for a more profitable farm after two or three years, he said, but can make farmers uncomfortable to start.

“Anything that stretches conventional farming introduces risk,” Potere said.

Yet agriculture has the potential to be a solution to the climate problem, he said, if farms can capture carbon. “The reward is it puts the farmer as the hero” in fighting climate change, Potere said.

The Subcommittee on Innovation and Workforce Development called the hearing to delve into a wide range of agriculture-related technology, from improved high-speed internet service in rural areas to soil conservation to modern tractors.

“The full potential of ag-tech to meet global food demands, mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and create jobs in our rural communities will not be fully realized unless we fully support our farmers and innovators and the research that supports them,” said subcommittee Chairman Jason Crow (D-Colo.).

Internet service alone is a big issue in places like Iowa, where gaps in service persist, said Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa). With better service, farmers can tie in to systems that use global positioning to track the characteristics of soil in small patches; that, in turn, allows for more precise use of fertilizer, irrigation, or practices that conserve carbon and could play into a carbon marketplace.

Congress has moved toward expanding rural internet through farm bill programs, but lawmakers continue to press for new federal investment.

Lawmakers have also looked to encourage biotechnology, although genetic engineering is a hot-button issue with some sustainable agriculture and consumer groups that urge an approach more aligned with organics.

Yet genetic engineering could help tackle the climate issue by allowing scientists to develop better cover crops, for instance, said Douglas Jackson-Smith, a professor and assistant director of the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University.

Cover crops are planted for the off-season, when the main crop isn’t grown, to prevent erosion and improve soil health, including carbon retention.

Although many farmers use them and Agriculture Department programs encourage them, cover crops can be complicated enough to discourage farmers, Jackson-SMith said. Bioengineered cover crops might promise bigger benefits, he said.