By Charlie O'Brien, AEM Senior Vice President and Ag Sector Lead
Throughout the ages, the United States’ agriculture has benefited from the infrastructure that transports commodities to market and moves equipment from manufacturers to the farm to plant and harvest food for the world.
Our roadways, interstate system, ports, and, of course, the Mississippi River, which is linked to 15,000 miles of inland waterway system, have provided us with a key competitive advantage over other agricultural producers around the world. But do we still have that advantage? Are we keeping up with our needs for today and tomorrow?
Currently, the U.S. is ranked 11th in the world in infrastructure competitiveness. Does this give the U.S. the advantage it once enjoyed? In my opinion, no. Good infrastructure policy is not just about fixing a road here and there or fixing, one by one, the 55,000 bridges that are in need of maintenance to meet the standards and needs of today. It’s about completely rethinking infrastructure, acting strategically and incorporating the amazing technologies we now have so we can improve our ranking in the world and, of course, continue to feed the world through agriculture.
The Panama Canal has been expanded to allow much larger ships with 50-foot draft to traverse it. However, the lower Mississippi stretch carrying ocean vessels to the ports of New Orleans, South Louisiana and Baton Rouge is currently only 45 feet deep. Nationwide, an estimated $9 billion in dredging work is needed to accommodate the bigger ships, according to Kurt J. Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities. Another $29 billion needs to be spent on other infrastructure improvements at the nation’s ports.
China, India, and other countries with low labor and regulatory costs are looking to the future by building a 21st century infrastructure capable of supporting a strong 21st century economy. This should be a wake-up call for the United States. It is time to accept the challenge. It is time to rebuild and modernize our infrastructure to ensure that America’s 21st century economy is the world’s strongest economy.
Our needs are very different today than they were 50 years ago. Infrastructure is much broader. In the age of precision agriculture and internet and GPS enabled technologies, we need to consider connectivity. Do we have the broadband in rural America to maintain our competitive advantage utilizing the cutting edge technologies that have been developed for agriculture? Can the machines talk to one another as designed or run autonomously without connectivity? The answer is NO!
Our contributions to feeding the world, including our own population here in the U.S., is extraordinary. We need this same sort of focus on infrastructure to continue be able to feed the growing population of the world.
AEM has launched The U.S. Infrastructure Advantage™, a report that outlines steps lawmakers should take to reclaim the country’s infrastructure advantage. The document was developed by AEM’s Infrastructure Vision 2050 Task Force and is unique in that it was developed by agriculture and construction industry executives rather than policy experts. Please take some time to review the report (www.aem.org/advocacy) and consider the future needs of our country. It is time for us to make noise about the importance of our infrastructure with our congressional leaders, so that we truly can have a competitive advantage going into the 21st century.