Opinion

Technology Drives the Sustainable Practices Needed to Meet 21st Century Food Demand

Late last week, President-Elect Joe Biden named Michael Regan, currently serving as head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, as the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. We welcome his expertise and are looking forward to working with him over the next four years.

With this news, I want to emphasize the importance of sustainability in agriculture. As networks and technology are constantly improving, farmers continue to weigh the use of resources like water, seeds, pesticides and fertilizer against overall cost and output of the farm. As the world’s population continues to grow and water scarcity becomes more of a reality, sustainability will continue to be extremely critical in order to meet global food supply chain demands.

Farmers across the country are in support of sustainability and innovation. However,  14.5 million rural Americans still lack uninterrupted broadband service at sufficient speeds, limiting any technological innovation tools that farmers can use to increase efficiency and sustainability. Both policy and technical challenges have played a role but it’s time that Congress prioritize 5G buildouts in rural America so every American farmer, business and consumer can benefit.

This may come as a surprise to most Americans, but agriculture is an increasingly digital industry. American farmers are innovative, and eager to find new ways to increase productivity while decreasing costs and their environmental footprint. Expanding 5G connections can accelerate the adoption and evolution of new precision agriculture solutions to make farming more profitable, cost-effective, and sustainable.

Including rural communities, farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers in America’s efforts to expand 5G connectivity will help offset the missed opportunities and neglect that rural communities are facing due to inadequate digital infrastructure.

The United Nations projects the world’s population will swell to 9.7 billion by 2050 — increasing by nearly 2 billion. At the same time, the world could be facing a 40 percent shortfall in water availability in just 10 years if current trends hold, according to projections. These figures demand that the agricultural community — at home and around the world — prioritize the developing technology solutions to produce more without unnecessarily depleting finite resources or overworking the land with chemicals or fertilizers. Fortunately, precision agriculture powered by 5G can help farmers do more with less.

With access to 5G, farmers could leverage ground-level sensors that collect data on soil, humidity, crop growth and other factors and feed that data to a virtual dashboard. That dashboard could then allow farmers to monitor the health of their soil and crops in real-time, providing alerts if additional seeding, watering, fertilizing, or pest control is necessary. Advances in agricultural technology can make producing otherwise resource-intensive crops viable, helping mitigate concerns regarding climate change while increasing productivity and profitability for farmers.

According to a recent study, only roughly one-quarter of farms in the United States currently use any internet-connected equipment or devices to access data — and many of those that do are operating on decades-old 2G or 3G networks that can only move small bits of data, not the gigabytes that the next generation of farming will demand. We can work together to position the U.S. agricultural industry as a global model for both sustainability and high-yield farming practices if Congress acts swiftly to invest in digital infrastructure for rural communities and to expand 5G networks nationwide.

America will win the global race to 5G only if our local and national leaders work together to ensure that the benefits of 5G deployment are fairly and evenly distributed across the country. Historically unserved and underserved rural communities deserve a fair shot at participating in the digital economy. If given the opportunity, American farmers can transform and lead the global agricultural industry by doing what they have done for generations: adapting and innovating. Expanding 5G connectivity to rural areas is a necessary step towards increasing sustainability and unlocking the true potential of American agriculture.

Betsy Huber is the president of the National Grange.

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