USDA Urged to Boost Agri-Tech Like DOE to Cut Carbon Emissions

A new report from the environmental think tank The Breakthrough Institute has spotlighted a critical gap in the U.S. government’s approach to decarbonizing the agricultural sector. Despite agriculture being a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, companies striving to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint receive minimal support from federal agencies. The report calls for a more proactive and interventionist strategy, urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to emulate the Department of Energy (DOE) in its comprehensive support for technological innovation.

The Breakthrough Institute’s report argues that the USDA should adopt a holistic approach similar to the DOE, which provides extensive support to companies across the research, development, demonstration, and deployment stages. The DOE’s initiatives are designed to address the technological and commercialization ‘valleys of death’ that often hinder innovation. The report emphasizes that increasing agricultural research and development funding—which has been on the decline for decades—and investing in climate-friendly, low land-use, and affordable food production technologies will be crucial for the future of U.S. agriculture.

While the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) allocated nearly $20 billion for agricultural programs, the report notes that much of this funding is directed towards incentivizing practices like no-till farming and cover crops. These measures, although beneficial, have limited and inconsistent potential for long-term climate mitigation. The bulk of IRA funding is funneled into energy production, transportation, and infrastructure rather than directly supporting agricultural innovation. However, the DOE’s new Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) Purchase Pilot Prize, which offers up to $35 million for carbon dioxide removal pathways including enhanced weathering and mineralization technologies, presents a glimmer of hope for agricultural lands.

The report acknowledges that government efforts to pick industry winners have not always been successful, citing the infamous case of Solyndra. However, it points out that private investors, including seed, angel, and venture capitalists, typically focus on early-stage research and development. These investors often lack the resources or willingness to support companies through the scale-up of manufacturing activities, leaving many firms stranded in the so-called valley of death. The report highlights that in 2022, only 4.3% of total climate finance was directed towards food and agriculture, indicating a significant oversight by global climate funders.

To address these challenges, the report outlines a series of policy recommendations aimed at injecting much-needed capital into the agrifoodtech sector at every stage of innovation:

**R&D Stage:** The report calls for doubling federal research funding for major agricultural R&D agencies like the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). It also advocates for fully establishing the USDA’s Advanced Research Authority (AgARDA) to develop innovative technologies.

**Demonstration Stage:** The report recommends funding testbeds through ARS and NIFA to evaluate and measure the environmental impacts of new agricultural technologies and practices. It also suggests creating an Office of Food and Agriculture Technology Demonstration at the USDA to bridge the gap between R&D and market adoption.

**Deployment Stage:** The report proposes supporting innovation through USDA direct and guaranteed loan programs, such as the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program and the Business & Industry Loan Guarantee Program. It also calls for establishing a Loan Programs Office at the USDA to provide larger loans for innovations with decarbonization potential. Additionally, the report advocates for a sustainable agriculture investment tax credit to encourage investments in sustainable agriculture technologies and systems.

The Breakthrough Institute’s report underscores the urgent need for a more robust and targeted approach to supporting agricultural innovation. Without increased government support, the sector’s potential to contribute to climate mitigation will remain largely untapped, hindering efforts to achieve a sustainable and low-carbon future.

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