Agtech’s Next Frontier
ARPA-E recently welcomed Dr. Nick Goeser as the federal Tech-to-Market (T2M) advisor for our agriculture technology portfolio. We sat down with Dr. Goeser ahead of ARPA-E’s upcoming carbon farming workshop to discuss his perspectives on the current state of domestic agriculture, and how ARPA-E can play a role in transforming the industry to better meet the needs of our society.
Q: You recently joined the T2M team at ARPA-E. What were you doing before joining ARPA-E and what motivated you to join the team?
A: Prior to ARPA-E my experience has largely focused on agriculture technology and soil science. My dad was a dairy nutritionist, so I spent my whole life in agriculture. Most recently, I served as CEO of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science Society of America. I was drawn to ARPA-E by the potential for impact. I think ARPA-E’s model for strategic funding can be highly effective in driving innovation and moving technology forward, and I believe that the agricultural industry is full of opportunities where strategic R&D funding could be transformational. In my experience, farmers need support for transformational shifts to address the growing challenges of an increasingly warming climate and complex economic landscape.
Q: Why is ARPA-E interested in agriculture technology, or “agtech”?
A: Currently, the agriculture industry accounts for 9% of annual domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and an increasing volume of literature highlights the importance of reducing ag emissions and increasing efficiency of production. I believe ARPA-E is in a great position to fund cutting edge research that will enable drastic cuts to emissions while still producing enough biomass to meet our demand for food and fuels. In the U.S and around the globe demand is growing rapidly for bio-based fuels and products produced from low-carbon, or carbon-negative, agricultural feedstocks. The question we want to answer is how can we produce more with less? In addition to improved agricultural productivity, the ag industry also demonstrates considerable opportunities for emissions reductions. As ground transportation becomes increasingly electrified, biomass and land use can be directed away from ethanol production and toward sustainable aviation fuels and carbon removal. Soil and biomass are huge carbon sinks, and carbon sequestration is an innate biproduct of crop production with significant economic, social and environmental co-benefits. The huge scale of agriculture production in the U.S means advancements in agricultural management could even have the potential to offset emissions from other sectors.
Q: How do ARPA-E’s agtech programs help advance ARPA-E’s mission areas?
A: At a very high level, an emphasis on agtech is an emphasis on improving efficiency by better managing the many complex variables that affect productivity. If we can optimize variables like carbon and nitrogen flows, water consumption, nutrient availability, and energy input, we can optimize production efficiency and slash emissions. That being said, in order to stave off the most detrimental effects of climate change it is not enough to just cut emissions; we need to go negative. Therefore, I am interested in identifying strategic investments that will help establish markets to facilitate negative emissions and ensure the long-term the health of agricultural ecosystems. One way we are already working towards this goal is with the SMARTFARM program. SMARTFARM targets agricultural carbon quantification. Think – how much carbon per acre of farmland is sequestered in the soil, roots, crops, etc., and how does this concentration change over time? Proper quantification is essential for effective carbon management, and up until now it has been highly inconsistent. SMARTFARM is laying the groundwork that will eventually enable the creation of a gold standard data set for life cycle analysis, physical sampling, and modeling frameworks to provide better market signals in carbon supply and demand.
Q: ARPA-E recently held its Agriculture Technology Annual Meeting. Can you tell us more about what went on at that meeting and share a moment that stood out to you?
A: The annual meeting was an exciting opportunity to hear updates from the project teams across the entire agtech portfolio. I found it particularly valuable to have farmers there to share their perspectives on farming operations, carbon market participation, and the practical application of novel technologies. The agriculture industry has very little margin for error; farmers must feel confident that whatever new practice or technology they are adopting will yield significant financial and productivity benefits while avoiding any possible negative externalities. One way to build that confidence is by advancing our capabilities in measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV). The annual meeting provided an exciting opportunity to hold a fireside chat with David Hayes (Special Assistant to the President for Climate Policy), where he emphasized this need and highlighted existing work across federal agencies to advance MRV. In order to fully leverage agricultural data sets, however, we need to increase participation in open access quantification tools, such as COMET-Farm, and instill the need for transparency in quantification. If we can glean comprehensive data on proper agricultural management, we can raise confidence in the impact farmers could achieve by adopting new techniques and offer incentives for implementation.
Q: Looking ahead, what is in store for agtech at ARPA-E?
A: Now that programs like SMARTFARM are addressing the carbon quantification problem, we have begun exploring opportunities to facilitate improved carbon sequestration into agricultural lands, sometimes referred to as “carbon farming”. We released on RFI on this topic in 2021 and gained a lot of useful insight into potential carbon farming approaches; from altering soil microbiomes or crop genetics, to the application of biochar, and cover cropping. We are now hoping to build on this knowledge by holding a carbon farming workshop where we will discuss the merits of innovation in carbon farming practices with experts from a broad range of scientific and economic disciplines. We anticipate learning a lot from this workshop and look forward to further refining this topic and potentially launching a new program.