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Opinion: Government Support Needed to Modernize Agriculture

World food prices have now fallen as much as 4.3 percent amid the pandemic, potentially crippling rural economies and raising sharp concerns among farmers trying to sustain their operations.

by Patrick J. Stover, Austin American-Statesman / April 29, 2020
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(TNS) — The United States has built the most abundant, affordable, accessible and diverse food system the world has ever known, but the emergence of the novel coronavirus is revealing vulnerabilities that have been growing for decades across the food and agriculture value chain. From production through consumption, we must prioritize the development of cutting-edge technologies that reduce our dependence on a precarious labor force, increase governmental support to modernize agriculture and protect front-line farmers to meet national needs for food and nutrition.

While there is no food shortage nationally, the global supply chain is at risk if the crisis persists. The United States is the world's No. 1 exporter of food, and production is strong thanks to our hardworking farmers and ranchers. But, world food prices have fallen 4.3 percent amid the pandemic, potentially crippling rural economies and raising sharp concerns among farmers trying to sustain their operations.

The U.S. government has declared agriculture as "essential" during the crisis, but access to an uncertain workforce threatens agriculture operations nationwide. With a heavy reliance on labor, many U.S. farms are not well positioned to lean on mechanization when labor is unavailable. This must change.

Some industries, like processed raspberries and blueberries, nuts, or grains, have highly mechanized both production and processing. Others are dependent on labor, such as vegetable and meat production, which are essential to human health. Without U.S.-based companies developing the equipment and newer technologies needed by these industries we will continue to be at risk.

Current machinery itself is cumbersome and cost-prohibitive for many farmers, some of whom have to buy overseas technologies to meet their needs. At the same time, better use of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms can significantly improve the performance of supply chain operations. We need to invest and prioritize digital agriculture and other technologies that are needed for a resilient 21st century food system.

As we modernize, federal intervention and ongoing relief for farmers is critical. While the CARES Act provides valuable financial assistance, we need to monitor the impact closely, and Congress should be prepared to authorize additional support that is more than just a patch. We must think long term. The food security of the nation depends on this.

In 2018, Texas A&M AgriLife, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, led the development of a consortium of U.S. academic institutions and other partners to establish a DHS Center of Excellence for Cross-Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense. Today, the center is analyzing the disruptions caused to the food and agriculture sectors' supply chains by the coronavirus.

Our Department of Animal Science has also provided assistance to U.S. meat and poultry establishments, helping alleviate worker safety concerns and refining health check programs for employees.

Innovation, science and federal and state financial assistance must increase resiliency to diversify our food supply and distribution, which is critical in even the greatest crises. Now is the time to lean into American agriculture, support our farmers and modernize the delivery systems to ensure the long-term fortitude of our local, national and global food system.

Stover is the vice chancellor and dean for agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M AgriLife, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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