Unlocking Precision Agriculture’s Climate Potential

For decades, a precision agriculture (PA) revolution has been ‘just around the corner,’ promising to transform American agriculture. While precision technologies—including variable rate applications, soil sensors, autosteering systems, and others—have significant potential to improve environmental outcomes, they have yet to be adopted at scale in the United States. As momentum grows to decarbonize every sector of the economy, PA is again gaining attention, due to its ability to both reduce emissions and enhance carbon sequestration in farmlands. PA technologies can address climate change in multiple ways, including by reducing fuel use, curbing the overapplication of nitrogen fertilizer, reducing product loss and waste, improving production efficiencies, and enabling conservation practices that grow farms’ and ranches’ carbon sink potential.

PA also faces numerous barriers, though, including high upfront costs, less applicability to small and diversified farming operations, lack of broadband connectivity, data privacy concerns, difficulty with interoperability between technologies, and producer skepticism. As a result, the promised PA ‘revolution’ may never be fully realized, although expanding PA adoption even absent industry-wide transformation still offers tangible benefits.

To address barriers and maximize PA’s potential, policymakers should take action in the following key areas:

  • Research, development, and demonstration: To better characterize PA’s climate benefits in various production systems, research needs to be ramped up to strengthen the climate case for PA investments and identify technologies with the highest potential. PA technologies also need to be developed that can be applied to a diversity of farming systems, beyond large-scale, monocultured row crops. In addition, demonstration efforts will be critical to scaling PA by allowing producers to see its impacts firsthand.
  • Enabling support for producers: Multiple PA technologies have high barriers to entry (e.g., broadband requirements, upfront cost), and the abundance of information generated by PA equipment can make it challenging for producers to transform that data into climate-smart decisions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its partners should address adoption barriers by investing in high-quality broadband and strengthening incentives for PA, while assisting producers to interpret PA data in ways that result in climate benefits.
  • Data considerations: USDA, Congress, the private sector, and producers need to coordinate to address data challenges that can both limit PA adoption and dampen the utility of PA data. This includes addressing concerns with data privacy in the industry and enhancing the interoperability of PA equipment.

By taking action in these key areas, policymakers can help precision agriculture technologies play an important role in maintaining the productivity of American agriculture while delivering benefits for producers, improving environmental outcomes, and enhancing the sector’s role in meeting economy-wide net-zero goals.