Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Working collaboratively to affect positive results for agriculture and the climate

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ATLANTA — Can a playbook be written now that will give positive results for both agriculture and climate change?

This is one of the many aspects approached by Robert Bonnie, USDA under secretary for farm production and conservation, during his keynote address during the Animal Agriculture Sustainability Summit at the 2023 International Production & Processing Expo.

The annual summit is sponsored by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, the American Feed Industry Association and the North American Meat Institute.

“Climate isn’t an easy issue when you are out in rural America working with farmers, ranchers and forest owners,” Bonnie said. “Folks worry that our policies are going to be done to them and not with them. The approach we take is going to be really important.”

“This is an important time for climate policy,” he added. “Obviously with the public you see a growing urgency and interest in efforts to deal with climate change. You see it internationally; you see it domestically; and you see more political momentum for climate policy.”

He noted that in looking seriously at future climate policy, all aspects of the economy must be considered, and agricultural practices must be given fair considerations.

“Because it is an important time for climate internationally and domestically, it is an important time for agriculture as well,” Bonnie said. “And what we do over the coming years, with respect to agriculture, will set the tone in going forward. If we get the approach right, it will work for farmers and ranchers and forest owners, even while it works for the climate.”

“The interesting thing between agriculture and climate is that there is actually a lot of alignment between the types of practices which are good for agriculture and forestry and practices which will benefit the environment,” he noted. “There is a lot of potential between practices that benefit the climate and benefit agriculture. The question is how do we take advantage of that alignment? How do we get away from the polarized politics of the environment and climate and actually create a model that takes advantage of that alignment?”

Agriculture having a voice in setting up current and future climate policy will be a key to success.

“I can’t tell you what the policy will look like in 10 years, but I can tell you that if we get the approach right, if we figure out how to work with agriculture and do so in an incredible way, then the policy will take care of itself,” Bonnie said.

A focus of his keynote address gave insight into “partnerships for climate-smart commodities.” The USDA has a program where $3.1 billion is to be directed to projects for the environment where producers will have their own projects and programs with available incentives.

“As we think about the approach that USDA is going to take about climate change, we are going to focus on voluntary, incentive based programs that are producer led,” Bonnie said. “We will look for opportunities for farmers, ranchers and foresters to develop their own projects, to design their own projects to figure out what the best practices and operational changes are for them.”

An important aspect to keep in mind regarding agriculture and the climate is maintaining productivity.

“We have to feed a growing world, even while we think about climate change,” Bonnie said. “If your climate solution is one that limits productivity that’s a problem. It’s not just a problem from a food standpoint, it’s actually a problem from a climate standpoint. Look at tropical deforestation, a lot of it is driven by expansion of agricultural lands in places like Brazil. If we can grow more food more efficiently on our land here that is actually a pretty good climate solution. It turns out that productivity in and of itself is an important part of the climate debate.”

Meat production and methane are also concerns around the globe and an area for growth and collaboration.

“When you think about meat production globally, we are far more efficient in the U.S. per methane emissions than producers in other parts of the world,” he noted. “And that’s because we are efficient. And if we turn that efficiency into climate change there is significant opportunity for us to be more productive and potentially more profitable and address climate change at the same time.”

There is a need now, through voluntary, producer led programs that will benefit the environment and agricultural success.

“We have this open playing field on the policy side and our challenge is deploy rapidly to show that we can produce real benefits, and if we can do that, this approach, this incentive voluntary approach that we develop with agriculture and for agriculture can actually, I think, be the way we do it in the U.S. and I think the way we do it globally as well,” Bonnie said. “We need investments in the people who are going to help take this approach forward.

“If we can produce something that actually produces real results and it has buy-in from our rural constituency, there is an opportunity to do something here that can have a lasting impact not only for the climate but for agricultural productivity and profitability.”

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