Ag, USDA Unveil Climate, Sustainability Moves

Inside D.C.

Ag, USDA Unveil Climate, Sustainability Moves

Organized agriculture finally decided to extricate its collective head from the sand, take off its blinders, distance itself at least a little from the politics – dragging USDA along with it – and confront the challenge of increasing production sustainability and shrinking its environmental footprint.  In a seriously smart move, 21 national organizations – ranging from general farm through livestock through crops – trumpeted midweek at an event held in the House Agriculture Committee room formation of a new coalition – Farmers for a Sustainable Future (FSF).

The next morning, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue used his keynote address to the annual USDA Agriculture Outlook Forum in Arlington, Virginia, to announce his new “agriculture innovation agenda” — “a department-wide initiative to align resources, programs and research to position American agriculture to better meet future global demands.”  Perdue’s statement translates to twin goals: Increasing U.S. ag production by 40%, while reducing farming’s “environmental footprint” by 50%, the deadline for both being 2050.

These two announcements are notable if only because neither entity – organized agriculture or the administration – has said much out loud about ag’s environmental footprint or how production agriculture can contribute to reducing said footprint.  It’s worth noting neither announcement included the words “climate change” at any point.

Important because both the conservative American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the more liberal National Farmers Union (NFU) are leaders in the effort, the farm coalition is key to future political battles to be fought on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures and in global areas over climate change, sustainability and how to control both phenomena. 

While House Democrats are getting ready to unveil their climate change strategy – the GOP will no doubt follow with its own – now is the time for collective agriculture, including agribusiness, to seize a seat at the policy table.  Given politicians of both parties, scientists and domestic and global activists don’t understand or care to learn how farming and ranching really work, a collective voice speaking a collective message and providing collective scientific evidence is necessary lest ag become the fall guy for government “action.”

EPA and other reputable scientific sources estimate U.S. agriculture is collectively responsible for about 9% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), with the livestock industry contributing about 2-3% of that total.  Politicized estimates, including those espoused by the UN, assert livestock production alone contributes more to global GHG emissions than the world’s entire transportation sector, an estimate dismissed out of hand by most experts.    

“The coalition’s guiding principles call for policies that support science-based research, voluntary incentive-based conservation programs, investment in infrastructure, and solutions that ensure vibrant rural communities and a healthy planet,” FSF said.  The coalition didn’t announce specific reduction goals or timelines, but some members provided charts showing dramatic emissions and water use reductions over the last 40 years.   The plan right now is to increase use of effective practices, including low-tillage crop production and use of cover crops.

USDA is looking to “align and synchronize” public and private research, take what works and make sure its part of “customer-facing” programs and review productivity and conservation data.  Benchmarks in the USDA effort include reducing U.S. food waste/loss 50% by 2030; “enhance carbon sequestration” through farming practices, increase renewable energy benefits “without regulatory overreach;” reduce water nutrient loss 30% by 2050, and increase feedstock production and biofuel production efficiency and competitiveness “to achieve market-driven blend rates of 15% of transportation fuels in 2030 and 30% of transportation fuels by 2050.” 

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