WASHINGTON – “Do right and feed everyone” is a motto at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means being good stewards of the land and doing more with less while feeding a growing population, said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during a Thrive Innovation Series webinar recently hosted by SVG Ventures.

“Innovation is the only way we can meet these challenges,” Perdue told John Hartnett, CEO and founder of SVG Ventures, in what was called a fireside chat.

Perdue pointed to American agriculture’s productivity gains – with the introduction and widespread adoption of hybrid seed in the 1930s to more recent years with the development of consumer-focused biotech traits and big-data applications. Currently the agricultural industry is about four times as productive as it was in the 1930s, he said.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused concerns about the reliability of the food supply and what it will take to feed more people in the years ahead. It’s important to bring disruptors to the market in terms of agricultural innovation.

“We’re thrilled Silicon Valley and other deep-thinking investors are now thinking about the food sector,” he said.

Through its Agriculture Innovation Agenda the USDA is seeking public- and private-sector input on innovations. Input is sought for innovations that could help increase the country’s food production by 40 percent while halving agriculture’s environmental footprint by 2050.

The USDA can help fund basic and applied research that may not have an immediate economic impact. It can help bring together and leverage public-private partnerships. Startups can offer new views on how to achieve goals of increasing food production while reducing environmental impact, Perdue said. If an entrepreneur provides sweat equity and needs a facility, the USDA could match that individual or company with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in developing proof of concept.

The investment community has become more involved in the food and agriculture sector, Hartnett said. Five years ago private-sector investment in food and agriculture was about $2 billion; in 2019 it had increased to $19 billion.

The USDA is accepting public comments and written stakeholder input for its Agriculture Innovation Agenda. The department’s Request for Information is open through Aug. 1. Respondents are asked to identify transformational innovation opportunities for the next era of agriculture productivity and environmental conservation. Input will help inform research goals to best address the goals of the agenda for the next 10 to 30 years, according to the USDA. The department expects to release a comprehensive agricultural-innovation strategy by the end of 2020.

The USDA will use metrics and data to determine progress.

“We can’t afford to ‘practice’ feeding everyone,” Perdue said. “We want to understand how we’re doing quarter by quarter – not waiting and hoping we get there. We need to make incremental progress at a steady pace.”

Robotics, sensors and satellites will be part of agriculture’s future. Those technologies will help address labor shortages, the aging population of farm workers and fewer people wanting to do the harder work of production agriculture.

Perdue stressed the importance of improving rural connectivity. He encourages the private sector to help in the effort.

“It’s one of the most transformative things we could do,” he said. “There are wide swaths of the country that are unconnected and it’s a disadvantage. Hopefully the pandemic showed us the importance of being connected. It’s just as important as electricity and it’s a staple of the modern global economy.”

Through the ReConnect program the USDA has been providing grants, loans and combination funds. They enable the government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Since October 2019 the USDA has invested $744 million in 34 states. The first round of the ReConnect program was completed in May 2020, with the USDA investing more than $500,000 in high-speed broadband for rural Iowa.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided $100 million in additional funding for the ReConnect program. The USDA received 11 round-one ReConnect Program applications that are eligible for that funding.

The USDA has received 172 applications for the second round of the ReConnect program; 41 states have requested $1.57 billion in funding. The U.S. Congress appropriated $1.3 billion for the first and second rounds of the ReConnect program. The USDA made $550 million available for the second round.

Visit usda.gov -- search for "agriculture innovation agenda" -- and govinfo.gov -- search for "solicitation of input from stakeholders on agricultural innovations" --and svgventures.com for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.