Perdue outlines plans for USDA innovation

Kim de Bourbon
The Hagstrom Report
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue delivers the keynote address at the opening of the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va.
Photo by Charles E. de Bourbon/The Hagstrom Report

ARLINGTON, Va. — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue launched the department’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda at the opening of the USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum here, which is focusing on how changes in technology and approach can change the future of agriculture.

Perdue described the initiative as a “department-wide effort to provide farmers with the tools they need” to increase productivity 40% while reducing the industry’s environmental footprint 50%, by 2050.

Other goals are to reduce food loss and waste 50% by 2030, and improve carbon sequestration by 30%, improve water quality by 30%, and increase renewable energy by 30% by 2050.

Perdue used the image of a football scoreboard to show these benchmarks that prioritize innovation, with the projected “score” displayed as “USDA 99, Hunger 00.”

“If you don’t keep score, you’re just practicing,” Perdue said, quoting former NFL coach Vince Vince Lombardi and acknowledging these were “stretch” goals, and “aspirational.”

Following his keynote speech, Perdue held a “fireside chat” with John Hartnett, founder and CEO of SVG Ventures, who was brought to the stage with the playing of the “Mission Impossible” theme.

After mentioning his boyhood on a farm in County Clare, Ireland, Hartnett described USDA’s goals as “bold and ambitious,” but as the “most important mission” for the country.

Hartnett is also founder of THRIVE, an agri-food innovation network that works with agriculture, food and technology corporations to advance the future of food and agriculture through innovation.

“The work of agriculture is not straightforward,” he said, noting that the challenge is to align entrepreneurs and innovators with the problems to be solved.

When Hartnett described his company’s role with Forbes in bringing Silicone Valley entrepreneurs together with Salinas Valley farmers in California for the Agriculture Technology Summit, Perdue said his intention would be to add USDA as a public sector partner in such efforts.

It’s about “challenging entrepreneurs to solve problems,” Hartnett said, and “putting entrepreneurs and farmers together.”

Perdue and Hartnett also discussed the importance of new technology against the need to oversee its development.

“Regulation will slow down innovation,” Hartnett said. “But regulation is needed. Balance is important.”

Hartnett also emphasized the need for increased broadband internet access in rural America. “We have to lead the world in connectivity,” Hartnett said. “It’s the biggest mission we have. We have to light up the farms.”

Hartnett advocated establishing “superfarms” across the country, which he described as “areas of excellence” that could be used to demonstrate new ways of doing things.

Perdue said he could see going before Congress to promote funding for the “superfarms” idea, identifying the need to prove innovations in the field.

With superfarms, Hartnett said, the country would be “demonstrating the future.”

Perdue noted that often, “we know what works,” but “we don’t have universal adoption,” and he asked Hartnett to “help us hold USDA accountable” for meeting its innovation goals.