November 9, 2017

Public-Private Partnerships Key to AgTech Revolution

On May 25, 1961, one month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and urged that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

In an effort to assert our space superiority over (and maintain a balance of power with) our Cold War foes, President Kennedy launched the Apollo program, one of the largest non-military technological projects ever undertaken by the United States. To achieve the aggressive timeline established by the president, substantial increases in NASA funding and personnel were required.

During the decade of the 1960s, NASA’s annual budget predictably grew —by more than eight-fold. Significantly, though, NASA leadership recognized that their internal brain power and production capability would not be sufficient to complete the Apollo project. Ultimately, to achieve this unprecedented feat, they would need to harness the talent and resources of the then-emerging aerospace industry. In total, between 80 and 90 percent of program spending was directed to private industry, research institutions and universities.

This emphasis on public-private partnerships resulted in the monumental triumph of the Apollo program, culminating with the first manned-landing on the moon by decade’s end. It also serves as an appropriate model for another technological frontier that we must overcome as a nation; one that may not be as daunting or dramatic as the moon landing, but will prove just as strategic for our future security.

I’m talking about the production of food, and the technology that will be required to continue producing a safe and affordable supply for our people. The challenges facing our farmers have never been more overwhelming: water scarcity, labor shortages and ever-expanding regulatory burdens, among countless others.

As in the past, our industry will need to innovate our way through these obstacles. Indeed, we are well underway. Private investment in agricultural technology—“agtech”—has increased dramatically over the past three years, with an average of $3.4 billion invested per year between 2014 and 2016, compared to just over $500 million per year between 2010 and 2013.

With the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT), we are facilitating the development of agtech for the fresh produce industry, with the goal of accelerating the time-to-market for solutions in areas ranging from biotechnology to robotics and mechanization to decision support software and big data analytics. In less than two years, we have already reached a milestone of 50 start-up companies that are current or past residents of the WGCIT. Several have matured to development stage and are headed for even greater growth.

Just as we saw an emergent aerospace industry following World War II, supported by NASA during the space race with the Soviet Union, we are witnessing the early stages of a technological revolution that will forever change the way we farm and feed the world. And I believe there is an appropriate role for the government to play.

Beyond the national security imperative of securing a safe and affordable domestic food supply, many public policy priorities embraced by both political parties intersect with agriculture, such as immigration reform, environmental protection and public health (which includes food security and nutrition). Our elected officials and government agencies should engage in the agtech space and work with the industry to cooperatively resolve both production and political challenges.

Currently, the federal government makes modest investments in agtech. For example, the specialty crop research initiative, a program established in the Farm Bill, provides nearly $50 million per year to fund the development of innovations and technologies in areas such as plant genetics and genomics, pests and diseases, and mechanization and food safety. These dollars require a 100 percent match from the private sector and serve as an example of the type of public-private partnership that can spur advancement.

Another Farm Bill expenditure, the specialty crop block grant program, has also been used to leverage public and private money to promote innovation. The Center for Produce Safety (CPS), launched seven years ago as a public-private partnership, has received significant funding from the block grant program. Built on the philosophy that industry-wide problems require industry-wide brainpower, the CPS brings together leaders from industry, government and the scientific and academic communities to advance real-world solutions to enhance food safety throughout the supply chain.

The programs are successful examples of the public and private sectors working together to advance agricultural science and technology. But, like the mission President Kennedy inspired, we need a “moon shot” to ensure the strength, resiliency, and superiority of our nation’s farms and food systems.

More can, and must, be done. We’re asking the federal government to double the current funding levels for the specialty crop research initiative and to prioritize technological advancement for American agriculture, in particular around mechanization. By expanding federal engagement in agtech, Washington can speed the development and adoption of critical innovations in the fresh produce industry, and help us ensure that American farmers meet the needs of a growing population with fewer resources and a smaller footprint, for many generations to come.

It’s not a moon shot, but it’s at least as important to America.