The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy – known as ARPA-E – recently welcomed Nick Goeser as its federal technology-to-market adviser for agriculture technology. ARPA-E interviewed Goeser before a carbon-farming workshop held in June in Kansas City.
He discussed his perspectives on the current state of U.S. agriculture and how ARPA-E can play a role in transforming the industry to better meet the needs of society.
What did you do before joining ARPA-E and what motivated you to join the team?
Goeser: Prior to ARPA-E I was mainly focused on agriculture technology and soil science. My dad was a dairy nutritionist so I spent my entire life in agriculture. Most recently I served as CEO of the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America.
I was drawn to ARPA-E by the potential for impact. I think its model for strategic funding can be effective in driving innovation and moving technology forward. I believe the agricultural industry is full of opportunities where strategic research 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.
Why is ARPA-E interested in agricultural technology?
Goeser: The agricultural industry accounts for 9 percent of annual domestic greenhouse-gas emissions. An increasing volume of literature highlights the importance of reducing emissions from agriculture and increasing production efficiency. 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 demand for food and fuels.
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 we can produce more with less.
In addition to improved productivity the agriculture industry 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. Carbon sequestration is an innate byproduct of crop production with significant economic, social and environmental benefits. The huge scale of agriculture production in the U.S means that advances in agricultural management could even have the potential to offset emissions from other sectors.
How do ARPA-E’s agricultural technology programs help advance its mission areas?
Goeser: An emphasis on agricultural technology is an emphasis on improving efficiency by better managing the complex variables that affect productivity. If we can optimize variables such as carbon and nitrogen flows, water consumption, nutrient availability and energy input, we can optimize production efficiency and slash emissions.
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But to avoid the most detrimental effects of climate change it isn’t enough to simply cut emissions; we need to go negative. Therefore I’m interested in identifying strategic investments that will help establish markets to facilitate negative emissions and ensure the long-term health of agricultural ecosystems.
One way we’re already working toward that goal is with ARPA-E’s SMARTFARM program. It targets carbon quantification. Think about how much carbon per acre of farmland is sequestered in soil, roots and crops and how concentration changes through time. Proper quantification is essential for effective carbon management. Until recently it’s been inconsistent.
SMARTFARM is laying the groundwork that will eventually enable 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.
ARPA-E recently held its Agriculture Technology Annual Meeting. What was discussed at that meeting?
Goeser: The meeting was an exciting opportunity to hear updates from project teams in the entire agricultural technology 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 adopt 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. The annual meeting provided an opportunity to hear from David Hayes, Special Assistant to the President for Climate Policy. He emphasized the need and highlighted existing work by federal agencies to advance measurement, reporting and verification.
But to fully leverage agricultural data sets we need to increase participation in open-access quantification tools, such as COMET-Farm, and instill the need for transparency in quantification. COMET is the official USDA greenhouse-gas quantification tool.
If we can glean comprehensive data on proper agricultural management, we can increase confidence in the impact farmers could achieve by adopting new techniques and offer incentives for implementation.
What’s ahead for agricultural technology at ARPA-E?
Goeser: Now that programs such as 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 a request for information on the topic in 2021 and gained useful insight into potential carbon-farming approaches – from altering soil microbiomes or crop genetics to the application of biochar to cover cropping.
We’re 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 the workshop and look forward to further refining the topic and potentially launching a new program.