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August 24, 2020

USDA Hosts Stakeholder Forum for Discussion and Feedback on AIA

The ACTA Group

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held a forum on its Agriculture Innovation Agenda (AIA) on August 16, 2020. The forum focused on science-informed policies and programs from government agencies with the shared aim of supporting environmentalism and enhanced productivity. AIA seeks to spur developments in biotechnology and support accessibility in response to modern industry challenges. Stakeholders were given a chance to hear from representatives and participate in a question and answer (Q&A) session. USDA anticipates hosting future discussion opportunities with stakeholders.

USDA Farm Production and Conservation Under Secretary Bill Northey opened the meeting by summarizing the overarching aims and accomplishments of AIA, as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue first announced in February 2020. Northey highlighted USDA’s commitment to environmental stewardship and stimulating the economy and production, two goals Northey stated were of equal importance. Northey stated that agricultural output has tripled over the past 70 years, while input has increased just a tenth of a percent annually.

By 2050, the overarching goal of USDA is to reach a 40 percent increase in agricultural production and reduce the industry’s environmental footprint by half. Northey recognized future population growth and characterized these objectives as attainable through prioritizing contemporary solutions in the industry. Regarding immediate goals, USDA has concentrated on accountability and goal meeting through internal review and benchmarks. Northey advocated for the coordination of public- and private-sector research and to “align the work of customer-facing industries to integrate innovative technologies and processes.” During the Q&A period, Northey stated that traditional techniques such as the four R’s (right source, rate, timing, and placement) and cover crops are effective for nutrient management and streamlined local approaches can invigorate underutilized solutions, like drain water managements, instead of a national and comparably delayed response. Northey emphasized USDA’s commitment to bolstering innovation and hearing concerns and suggestions on how best to serve the agricultural community.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Acting Chief Kevin Norton summarized a three-prong approach in the AIA: to identify, develop, and deliver. The first stage requires a review of new research for innovations for farmers to incorporate for “on-the-ground” operations. Norton mentioned that this process has already identified 11 innovations, including enhanced fertilizers able to increase crop-yield while mitigating nutrient loss, and a dairy milk tracking app that alerts farmers to elevated nitrogen levels. The development stage will provide fast-passes for innovations that expedite the review and approval process for public use. Norton mentioned that USDA is retrofitting some of the non-proprietary tools used internally for wider community access. For delivery, devices such as soil carbon amendments using composted biochar and phosphorus removal systems are dispatched with some financial assistance available. Additionally, referenced was recent novel technology with geospatial applicator abilities for precise planting.

Norton stated during the Q&A “good conservation can be the firewall to future regulations.” In response to a question on private-sector technical assistance, Norton answered that NRCS is undertaking the modernization of its mobile network of Technical Service Providers (TSP). Cost-shares will assist in covering the expenses of TSPs. In closing, Norton called for improved communication channels between consumers, producers, and NRCS to share science and experience on workable solutions.

USDA Farm Service Agency Administrator Robert Fordyce represented the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Fordyce encouraged participation in CRP, a program where farmers are “positioning their acres to be more successful, both in productivity and long-term environmental benefits.” As one of the most extensive conservation programs in the United States, CRP’s focus on soil health has manifold benefits — crop-yield, sequestered greenhouse gases, and reducing soil erosion. Annually, Fordyce reported that CRP has prevented nine billion tons of soil erosion, and reduced nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by upwards of 80 percent. Information on CRP’s enrollment period is available here.


USDA’s goal of stimulating innovation so that American agriculture can increase production by 40 percent while reducing its environmental footprint by half by 2050 is admirable. Achieving such an ambitious goal will require USDA to work with stakeholders. Responses to USDA’s April 1, 2020, request for information (RFI) on agricultural innovations were due August 1, 2020. 85 Fed. Reg. 18185. USDA asked respondents to identify transformational innovation opportunities for the next era of agriculture productivity and environmental conservation and propose approaches to these opportunities with an eye to the public- and private-sector research needed to support them. Based on stakeholder input from the RFI, USDA will develop a comprehensive U.S. agriculture innovation strategy that it intends to release by the end of 2020. As reported above, USDA anticipates hosting additional forums, providing a valuable opportunity for stakeholders to engage directly with USDA.