You may have noticed posts on social media recently marking #RuralBroadbandDay. I’d like to take a moment to consider how important rural broadband is to our industry, our nation and the people who live and work in agriculture. It’s so important, in fact, that it deserves the attention of Congress.
In recent weeks, several bills have been introduced in Congress to invest in rural broadband. Legislative efforts are focused on providing federal funds and permitting to deploy broadband faster. While rural communities have been asking for federal support for years, the COVID pandemic and stay-at-home orders have both called attention to America’s urban-rural digital divide and given new urgency and momentum to this initiative.
Cities and suburban areas enjoy widespread availability of high-speed Internet service, but much of rural America has yet to be connected. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, 22.3 percent of Americans in rural areas and 27.3 percent of people living on Tribal lands lack access to high-speed internet.
The reason is economic. Rural areas have lower population densities, and lower revenues, which together with the high cost of installing and operating Internet infrastructure creates a disincentive for large-scale private investment in rural infrastructure.
But only looking for profitability incentives ignores several other impactful advantages -- as well as necessary obligations -- of investing in rural broadband infrastructure. One of the many lessons of the COVID pandemic is that we must leverage broadband technology so we can to continue to work, teach, learn and stay connected with loved ones. Long without the broadband connectivity enjoyed by other parts of the country, rural America was particularly hit hard over the last few months.
All Americans should have an interest in seeing rural communities, where 60 million of us live and work, survive and thrive. Beyond agriculture and food processing, rural America is also our primary source of affordable energy, clean drinking water, and a rich variety of natural resources and outdoor recreation.
This same disparity in broadband that creates challenges in rural America also particularly impacts U.S. agribusiness. The farming sector is trying to embrace digital and satellite tools to modernize America’s food production. But it is being held back by an inadequate broadband infrastructure as it works to implement smart precision agriculture, which can increase crop yields, better manage farm inputs, and better respond to volatile weather patterns.
To that end, American agribusiness also is being held back by inadequate broadband infrastructure in its efforts to be a positive force to face down the adverse impacts of a changing climate.
Data and imaging also help farmers to see where problems may be arising in their fields. For example, if a fungus or pest has attacked part of a crop a farmer may be able to catch it early and treat the impacted area without spraying across the entire field.
Moreover, farmers have always been on the front line of climate change and have always been focused on land conservation and sustainability – perhaps more than any other group.
Digital agriculture tools, which need broadband structure, can help farmers expand their stewardship of the land in new and exciting ways. These tools can estimate the amount of carbon they could sequester in the soil of their field using agronomic practices such as no-till combined with cover crops and targeted nitrogen fertilizer applications.
A 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine showed the vast potential of these approaches, in that they don’t just limit carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, but stop the emissions from happening altogether – to the tune of removing 250 million metric tons. That’s the equivalent of 5.4 million cars not being on the road.
But without reliable, affordable high-speed connectivity, at both the farmhouse and in the field, many of these innovative digital technologies will not realize their full potential or be widely adopted and such positive climate impacts cannot be achieved.
We must invest in rural broadband, and with that, invest in rural America, and invest in the air that we all breathe. The private sector must do its part to provide the incentives to do so. In a new pilot initiative, Bayer will start rewarding farmers in Brazil and North America for adopting even more climate-smart practices that help agriculture further reduce and sequester carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to benefit the ag industry and society overall. More of this is needed from others – but private investment will not be enough. Congress also must act, and now is the time.
The COVID pandemic has rapidly changed the way we work, learn and stay connected in urban, suburban and rural settings. It has highlighted the need to accelerate investments in quality, fiber-based broadband funding and permitting. America’s communications infrastructure is critical to ensuring our global competitiveness, critical to ensuring rural America can thrive, and critical to making real change to address the impacts of a changing climate. It is urgent for Washington to act to reduce the digital divide and enable all communities to contribute to our economic growth. This is one issue all of our political leadership should rally around to make a reality this year.
Lisa Safarian is responsible for the North American commercial performance of Crop Science, a division of Bayer. This consists of sales, marketing, market development and product supply for row crops, specialty crops and horticulture, including seeds, traits and crop protection in the United States and Canada. Before assuming this key leadership role when Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018, Ms. Safarian served as Vice President, North America, for Monsanto and held a variety of other positions in her more than 30 years with that company.