Technology & Innovation

118th Congress: Resilient Agriculture, Society & Environment

01.12.23 | 5 min read | Text by Maeve Skelly & Jessica Blackband & Vijay Iyer

Over the past several years, instability has been a national and global constant. The COVID-19 pandemic upended supply chains and production systems. Floods, hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, and fires have imposed catastrophic consequences and forced people to reconsider where they can safely live. Russia’s war with Ukraine and other geopolitical conflicts have forced countries around the world to scramble for reliable energy sources.

Congress must act decisively to fortify the United States against these and future destabilizing threats. Priorities include revitalizing U.S. agriculture to ensure a dependable, affordable, and diverse food supply; improving disaster preparation and response; and driving development and oversight of critical environmental technologies.

Revitalizing U.S. Agriculture. Every society needs a robust food supply to survive, thrive, and grow. But skyrocketing food prices and agricultural supply-chain disruptions indicate that our nation’s food supply may be on shaky ground. Congress can take measures to rebuild a world-leading U.S. agricultural sector that is sustainable amid evolving external pressures.

A first step is to invest in agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship. The 2018 Farm Bill created the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA) as a driver of transformative progress in agriculture, but failed to equip the institution with a key tool: prize authority. Prizes have proven to be force multipliers for innovation dollars invested by many institutions, including other Advanced Research Projects Agencies (ARPAs). It would be simple for Congress to extend prize authority to AgARDA as well.

Prize authority at AgARDA would be especially powerful if coupled with additional support for agricultural entrepreneurship. Congress should fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Minority Business Development Administration (MBDA) with $25 million per year for five years to jointly develop a “Ground Up” program to help Americans start small businesses focused on sustainable agriculture.

We must also begin viewing our nation’s soil as a strategic resource. Farmers and ranchers cannot succeed without good places to plant crops and graze livestock. But our nation’s fertile soil is being lost ten times faster than it is being produced. At this rate, many parts of the country will run out of arable land in the next 50 years. Some places—such as the Piedmont region of the eastern United States—already have. States including New Mexico, Illinois, and Nebraska have already introduced or passed legislation to preserve and restore soil health; Congress should follow their example. A comprehensive soil-health bill could, for instance, create bridge-loan projects for farmers transitioning to soil-protective farm practices, expand the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program to cover such practices, fund USDA Extension offices to provide related technical assistance, and support regenerative agriculture in general.

Finally, Congress should extend funding for two programs that are delivering clear benefits to U.S. food systems. With major food production concentrated in five states, often far from major population centers, the farm-to-table pathway is extraordinarily susceptible to disruptions. The American Rescue Plan Act created the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program to help small- and medium-sized enterprises strengthen this pathway, including through “aggregation, processing, manufacturing, storing, transporting, wholesaling or distribution of food.” This program should be continued and resourced going forward. In addition, the Bioproduct Pilot Program studies how materials derived from agricultural commodities can be used for construction and consumer products. This program increases economic activity in rural areas while also lowering commercialization risks associated with bringing bio-based products to market. Congress should extend funding for this program (currently set to expire after FY 2023) for at least $5 million per year through the end of FY 2028.

Improving Disaster Preparation and Response. Every year, Americans lose billions of dollars to natural hazards including hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and droughts. We know these disasters will happen…yet only 15% of federal disaster funding is invested to blunt their effects. In particular, current disaster policy and practice lacks incentives for local governments to proactively reduce risks.

Congress can address this failure by amending aspects of the Stafford Act of 1988. In particular, Congress should redefine the disaster threshold in ways that factor in local capacity and ability to recover. Congress should also consider (i) reducing the federal cost share for disaster response, (ii) implementing other incentive models that may induce better local hazard-reduction decisions and improve long-term resilience, and (iii) strengthening existing incentive programs. For example, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) Community Rating System (CRS) could be improved by requiring local governments to take stronger actions to qualify for reduced insurance rates and increasing transparency about how community ratings are calculated. 

Disaster management response is not the sole purview of FEMA. For example, the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program positions the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a primary disaster-response funder. To ensure efficiency and prevent duplication of effort, Congress must clarify the role of each federal agency involved in disasters.

Congress should also ensure adequate research funding to investigate evidence-based and cost-effective disaster mitigation and response strategies. A useful first step would be doubling the interagency Disaster Resilience Research Grant (DRRG) program, which already supports researchers in groundbreaking modeling, simulations, and solutions development to protect Americans from the most catastrophic consequences.

Driving Development and Oversight of Critical Environmental Technologies. Environmental technologies are critical to ensure energy and resource security. Congress can use market-shaping mechanisms to pull critical environmental technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), forward. Operation Warp Speed demonstrated breakthrough capacity of federally backed advance market commitments (AMCs) to incentivize rapid development and scaling of transformative technologies. Building on this example, Congress should authorize a $1 billion AMC for scalable carbon-removal approaches—providing the large demand signal needed to attract market entrants, and helping to advance a clean all-of-the-above energy portfolio. This approach could then be extended to other environmentally relevant applications, such as building infrastructure to enable next-generation transportation.

Congress must also ensure responsible deployment and reasonable oversight of new environmental technologies. For instance, DOE recently launched an ambitious “Carbon Negative Shot” to foster breakthroughs in carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technology, and is also leading an interagency CDR task force pursuing the advancement of many CDR approaches. But we lack a national carbon-accounting standard and tool to ensure that CDR initiatives are being implemented consistently, honestly, and successfully. Congress should work with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to address this assessment gap.

Similarly, the IRA appropriates over $405 million across federal agencies for activities including “the development of environmental data or information systems.” This could prove a prescient investment to efficiently guide future federal spending on environmental initiatives—but only if steps are taken to ensure that these dollars are not spent on duplicative efforts (for instance, water data are currently collected by 25 federal entities across 57 data platforms and 462 data types). Congress should therefore authorize and direct the creation of a Digital Service for the Planet “with the expertise and mission to coordinate environmental data and technology across agencies”, thus promoting efficiencies in the data enterprise. This centralized service could be established either as a branch of the existing U.S. Digital Service or as a parallel but distinct body.

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