Sustainability. What does it mean? Ask ten people that question, and you’re likely to get ten different answers. What’s clear, however, is that there is a growing movement; a movement to make sure we take care of the earth, so it takes care of us.
Each one of us consumes precious resources. Every day, the average American uses 80-100 gallons of water, breathes 17,000 breaths, and eats up to five pounds of food. It’s no wonder we feel the responsibility of lessening the impact on the world we will leave for our children.
No one understands that responsibility more than America’s farmers and ranchers. For generations, we’ve recognized the importance of protecting our resources. We willingly accept the challenges and honor of being stewards of the gifts this country was blessed with; tending to the soil, caring for animals, relying on the sky and the earth to provide life for our families and neighbors. We’ve simply been reluctant to toot our own horns.
Now is the time for farmers and ranchers to engage in the discussion. I would imagine that many Americans aren’t aware of the extent of our current climate-smart farming practices. That’s part of the reason we formed a new coalition of twenty-one agricultural groups to share our commitment to sustainability. Farmers for a Sustainable Future stands ready to be a resource about agriculture’s environmental efforts.
A recent Duke University poll showed more than a third of rural voters trust local farmers and ranchers the most about environmental and conservation issues. As an organization made up of farmers and ranchers and charged with being their voice, we do not take that trust for granted. We’re committed to earning the trust of those in urban areas, too. We know there are many questions about how food is produced, how we are protecting natural resources and what we are doing to reduce emissions. We welcome questions and we’ll do our best to answer them.
The way we grow our crops is drastically different than just a hundred years ago. The use of conservation and no-till crops is on the rise. Natural topsoil is being left undisturbed during planting and harvesting, reducing the chances of erosion from rain and wind, and trapping carbon within the earth instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Choosing the best crop for the region reduces water usage. Varying the types of crops planted in a field increases soil fertility and harvests.
Few people realize that the American farmer was among the first environmentalists, but it’s true. More than 140 million acres, 15% of all farmland, is dedicated to conservation and wildlife habitat. That equals the total land area of California and New York state combined. This number does not include the millions of acres in state-led conservation practices.
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Greenhouse gas emissions, one of the most cited factors in addressing climate change, are trending down in American agriculture. In all, agriculture represents less than 9% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, far eclipsed by cars, electricity production, and other industries. The growing and harvesting of crops and the raising of livestock are creating less greenhouse gas than just thirty years ago. We’re doing this by using geothermal energy, and harnessing the power of the sun and wind. Satellite technology helps farmers plant and harvest crops more efficiently, requiring less fuel and labor. Methane digesters capture and neutralize animal waste, turning it into fuel and fertilizer.
Farmers and ranchers are always looking for better, more efficient ways to feed the world. We welcome the growing public interest in how we get food from our fields to your home. We celebrate the growth in farmers’ markets, and interest in farm to table, which can reduce steps in the food production chain.
Those options alone, however, cannot feed 9 billion people. It’s critically important that we keep healthy food affordable, and obtainable by all, while protecting the environment. The farming and ranching practices we employ today – and the innovations that will result from our commitment to continuous improvement – are setting the stage for the next thirty years when the demand for food will increase by 70%.
We invite you to take this journey with us. We need partners. Partners in research, innovation, and investment to advance practices that reduce emissions and capture carbon. Together we can leave the world a better place for our children, and that ultimately should be the definition of sustainability.
Zippy Duvall is the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. He is a third-generation farmer from Georgia.