While Washington has been focused on how tax reform could spur economic growth, our nation’s interest with modernization and progress should go way beyond taxes. In fact, innovation is a key pillar of America’s global leadership standing and plays a role in all of our top industries, including agriculture. Just as the sustainability of the agricultural industry has relied on innovation over the last hundred years, the future of food will depend on the successful development of novel agricultural technologies.
Agriculture has always been fundamental to our way of life and technologies have transformed it from simply feeding the community to supporting the livelihoods of farmers, contributing to the U.S. economy, and feeding those half-way around the world. For instance, in the late 1700s, the invention of the cotton gin helped turn cotton into a cash crop in the South, and in modern times, cotton adds $120 billion through business revenue to the global economy. Within the 19th century alone, novelty farm tools reduced the amount of time it took to produce 100 bushels of wheat from about 300 hours in 1830 to 50 hours in 1890.
While we have significantly increased yields and reduced labor time in the last few centuries, it is important that we continue to support new technologies that allow American farmers to meet global demand with high-quality, nutritious food. In fact, U.S. agricultural exports have been larger than U.S. agricultural imports since 1960, as there is growing demand worldwide for the food we produce. We export $131 billion worth of foods, feeds, and beverages every year.
While the government and private industry have always invested in agricultural R&D, public investment in agricultural research is currently at all-time lows and there is no sign of that trend reversing course. At the same time, private-sector investment in agricultural research has risen. Between 1994 and 2010, total private R&D expenditures in seven agricultural input sectors increased from $5.6 billion to $11 billion globally, with the United States and Europe leading the way. For example, American giant Monsanto and Germany’s Bayer spend a combined on R&D operations alone.
These companies’ investments in R&D are clearly translating into rewards and solutions for American farmers and consumers. Bayer, in conjunction with Bosch, recently debuted a game changing sprayer technology that utilizes cameras to identify weeds and treat crops when needed, which will save farmers the cost of blanketing fields in herbicides and help reduce our carbon footprint as well. New research from companies like Monsanto, NRCS, and the General Mills Foundation, is also guiding farmers to practice more agriculture through the use of cover and pulse crops that can improve soil health and overall yields.
In light of the reduction in public funding, it is important for private industry to collaborate and integrate resources towards a common goal in order to speed up results and lower costs. For example, the recent merger between Dow and DuPont, as well as the planned acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer, stand to dramatically increase the innovative potential of these R&D leaders through strengthened resources and stronger research. When companies that offer complimentary services and products come together through vertical integration, their consolidation will only benefit consumers and farmers. For instance, Monsanto is largely focused on seed traits, while Bayer is known for crop protection. While Bayer and Monsanto are already creating innovative solutions, this new relationship will allow the combined company to overcome expensive regulatory hurdles and share game changing innovation with farmers faster and more efficiently.
U.S. policymakers need to embrace the innovative spirit of the private sector and craft policies that promote these advances – whether it is through modernized tax reform or supporting mergers and acquisitions that increase efficiencies and productivity. Every new tool, technology, or practice can have a seismic shift on the global economy, the future of our food supply, and positively impact farmers on a local level. Like all industries, agriculture must remain dynamic and open to positive change that creates more efficient and productive enterprises that in turn support our famers and families worldwide.
About the Author: Karolyn Zurn is the president of Minnesota Agri-Women.