WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Leaders and lobbyists from several agricultural groups gathered Wednesday on Capitol Hill to announce they were launching Farmers for a Sustainable Future to play a policy role in dealing with climate change. They are also making the case that agriculture has already done a lot in the sustainability area, but has not effectively told the story.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said agriculture has to address "sustainability and what that word actually means in the context of climate discussion." Duvall noted discussion on climate change is ramping up, "and the House and Senate Agriculture Committees can play a real important role in the days to come."
The coalition announcement comes just before Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is expected to announce a goal during Thursday's USDA Ag Outlook Forum to reduce agriculture's environmental footprint by 50% by 2050 while still increasing farmer productivity 40% over that time. Perdue will announce the new department-wide sustainability initiative during his speech, POLITCO reported late Wednesday.
GREAT STORY TO TELL
Duvall said the new coalition "was formed to be a primary resource for lawmakers and policymakers while they are considering climate guidelines." Duvall added that "agriculture has a great story to tell" on climate change and sustainability practices.
"As we move forward on this climate issue, it's just imperative for agriculture to take its seat at the table and have its voice be part of the decisions and solutions so we can ensure our children and your children enjoy the same success as we have," he said.
Farmers for a Sustainable Future, made up of 21 major farm and livestock groups, itself does not have any specific goals set for the agriculture sector to reduce emissions. However, Duvall reiterated the coalition wants to be part of discussing the policies that will set goals for emission reductions.
HAUNTED FOR LONG TIME
Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said talk about sustainability "has haunted us for as long as I can remember," with false information, bad science and media portrayals that livestock production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and has a large environmental footprint.
Michael Formica, assistant vice president of the National Pork Producers Council, said pork producers have become more efficient in raising swine and changed feed rations as well. The result over the past 15 years is pork production has reduced its ammonia emissions and manure content of 17% to 68% coming from sow-farm lagoons in North Carolina. "We think it is really a strong and compelling story," Formica said.
PRODUCING MORE, USING LESS
Commodity groups each offered their own sustainability findings showing in some way that production has increased over the past three to four decades while their crop or livestock is using less water and fewer inputs per pound or bushel of production. "We are now producing more than we ever have while using considerably less resources such as land, water and energy," said Ben Mosely, a lobbyist for USA Rice, adding that 100 pounds of rice produced now is using 52% less water, 34% less energy and emitting 41% less greenhouse gas emissions than rice production over the past 36 years.
The coalition also had some signs and graphics posted, such as one highlighting that ethanol and biodiesel have combined to lower emissions by 71 million metric tons, equivalent to taking 17 million cars off the road.
In a separate interview Wednesday, DTN spoke with Jon Doggett, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Doggett said he would talk to his members next week at Commodity Classic in San Antonio about sustainability initiatives. Doggett noted that every week he gets pitches from groups that want to work with NCGA on some area of sustainability. NCGA formed the Soil Health Partnership more than five years ago to look at some of these topics. The partnership now takes up 18 out of 60 NCGA staff, and more than 200 farms are enrolled in the project. "We can't keep up with the demand," Doggett said. "There are just so many people who want to get into that program."
CLIMATE CHANGE CAUSES
While coalition leaders talked about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and even had a sign spotlighting that agriculture accounts for 9% of overall U.S. emissions, there was still a reluctance to acknowledge climate change is being caused by human-induced emissions being released into the atmosphere.
"I don't know whether it's human induced or natural induced, but if the climate is changing, we need to address the fact that it is changing," Formica said. "Ultimately, we need to become more efficient and that's the best way to address all of these issues."
NCBA's Lane noted cattle producers and farmers from around the country are not as worried about the wording being used to improve environmental outcomes. "Whether you use sustainability, whether you use climate change, they are not in a Washington, D.C., conversation about the right word. They deal with conditions on the ground, day-to-day, year-to-year and our job amongst our different group is to make sure they have the tools to deal with those, to be as productive as possible, and to make sure they are not subject either here in Washington, or anywhere else in the country, to bad information that results in bad policy."
Lane noted U.S. cattle producers are 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but global competitors may be as high as 18%. He questioned whether U.S. cattle production should have to reduce emissions further. "Is the juice worth the squeeze?" Lane asked.
With the U.S. as the world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only China, 2% of U.S. emissions is higher than the total emissions of dozens of countries.
Most agricultural sectors will deal with new strategies to reduce emissions to meet corporate goals. Major agribusinesses, food processors, restaurant chains and retailers have made commitments to reduce their environmental footprints over the next five, 10 and 15 years. Those commitments will eventually flow back to the farm gate and put demands on farmers to further shrink their environmental footprints as well.
The coalition does not have specific legislation it backs, but Duvall acknowledged the need for more resilient infrastructure, technology investment, research, conservation programs and other farm-bill programs to help address sustainability goals. "It's a list of all of the above, that we provide those tools to our farmers to adapt to a changing climate," Duvall said.
Duvall also said each of the farm groups supports more investment in research and development of agriculture. "If you compare us to the rest of the world, they are outspending us on research," he said.
Earlier this month USDA's science chief announced a five-year research plan focusing on food security and sustainability initiatives. USDA officials are expected to further highlight that research initiative at the USDA Outlook Forum.
Formica said addressing sustainability likely means changing farm-bill programs in different ways. He pointed to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which may need to fund climate resiliency work on farms in the future to address challenges producers face. "The cause of the challenge is sort of irrelevant for my members," Formica said. "They just want to know what the goal is we have to meet, 'Tell me what that target is,' and we're going to use our expertise and we're going to use the technology that is out there, and if it is not out there, we'll figure out a new technology to address that goal and to meet that goal so we can continue producing pork and feeding the world."
More information about Farmers for a Sustainable Future, including its member organizations, can be found at www.sustainablefarming.us.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.