Why the farm bill should embrace new technologies

Guest Author
A barn and cows in a field with two drones hovering overhead and a blue sky.
Illustration by Samson Awosan.

On farms in the United States today, you’re as likely to find high-tech drones, gene-edited microbes and precision sensors as you are to see traditional combines, trucks and tractors. Over the past five years, innovations with significant potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions have seen rapid adoption across the country, even as they swim upstream against behemoth legacy technologies.  

If the U.S. government is going to partner with farmers to make agriculture more productive, profitable and sustainable, its policies need to adapt. The farm bill, slated for reauthorization this year, is an opportunity to do so.  

The farm bill is the piece of legislation the U.S. government uses to ensure the stability and security of our nation’s food system. Climate change threatens both aims.  

For decades, subsidies, lax permitting and other policy advantages have helped to cement the status quo. Even today, billions of dollars in federal funds intended to spur development of new technologies to cut greenhouse gas emissions are being awarded to incumbent multinational companies. These companies have yet to break ground on the facilities needed to get marginally more sustainable products to market.  

This approach has enabled legacy technologies, such as synthetic fertilizers, to become entrenched as corporate mergers among multinational companies limit competition, leaving farmers with just a handful of commoditized choices.  

The result: an inefficient system that doesn’t work for farmers or the planet.   

The last farm bill was enacted in 2018. That same year, my company, Pivot Bio, launched its first commercial product, a novel nutrient for crops with a minimal environmental footprint.   

In fact, most of the companies now rapidly scaling transformative solutions for agriculture were just being founded. Some of the technologies in use today didn’t even exist. As a result, current farm bill policy continues to overlook proven, environmentally friendly solutions with years of accumulated data and science proving their effectiveness. 

Over the past five years, we’ve evolved the way that we think about value in the food and agriculture system. The true, and often hidden, costs of traditional, polluting technologies have come to the fore.

Farmers see the impact of legacy practices on their bottom lines — the costs of fuel, the hours spent on the tractor — as well as the costs to the health of their soil, the quality of their water and the biodiversity on their farms.   

There is a growing understanding that we need to look beyond the amount of food grown on an individual acre of land when assessing the effectiveness of farming practices. New solutions offer something older technologies cannot: the ability to continuously evolve to deliver value on multiple levels, like boosting long-term productivity and reducing nutrient runoff, while maintaining or boosting yields.

Take fertilizer. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers do only one thing — increase yields — and the tradeoffs are enormous. Synthetic nitrogen is one of agriculture’s leading contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions and a significant driver of poor water quality, biodiversity loss and air pollution.

Pivot Bio’s technology, which is now being used on over 5 million acres, enables microbes to convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form plants can use and deliver it to crops. The microbes are grown with sugar and water and have just 2% of the emissions profile of synthetic nitrogen. We estimate that Pivot’s microbial fertilizer products helped U.S. growers avoid more than 225,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent last year — equal to the electricity needs of 44,000 U.S. homes for a year — while also improving their productivity and profitability.

Microbial nitrogen is just one of many agricultural innovations from the last few years. But federal programs have not kept up with the rapid food system transformation underway as new technologies and approaches scale. Many of these newer solutions are not eligible for financial incentives through the farm bill, including in federal cost-share programs specifically designed to incentivize sustainable agriculture practices.  

The bipartisan Streamlining Conservation Practice Standards Act recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, which would make it easier to improve the list of conservation practices and tools eligible for assistance, lays the groundwork for more comprehensive legislative action in the next farm bill.  

Federal policymakers have an opportunity to level the playing field and rapidly scale leading-edge agricultural tech by recognizing these innovative products under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s conservation and crop insurance programs. 

Farmers are generally conservative, risk-averse businesspeople. And for good reason. They buy inputs at retail and sell crops at wholesale prices, with paper-thin margins and just two or three opportunities a year to turn a profit. Any change to production practices and on-farm tools — no matter what the data say about how well the technology works or the myriad benefits — comes with risk. 

Financial incentives make it less risky for farmers to implement new technologies or practices. Early adopters lay the groundwork for broader adoption as other farmers see living proof of the value these technologies can offer.  

The new bill should incentivize the approaches we know work today, while spurring further innovations to promote strong, productive farms. In this way, we can ensure our nation’s food supplies and a healthier environment long into the future.  

Editor’s note: Investors in Pivot Bio include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a program of Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher.