Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday called for cutting agriculture's environmental footprint in half by 2050 and also said that carbon pricing could encourage farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking at USDA’s Ag Outlook Forum Thursday, Perdue officially announced the Agriculture Innovation Agenda, which set goals to increase U.S. agricultural production by 40% by 2050 while reducing the sector's impact.

“Technology is going to be the key to productivity,” Perdue told reporters shortly after announcing the initiative. “The G-20 talks about ending world hunger by 2030, but somewhat wants to deny the technologies that will get us there.”

In a break from other Trump administration officials, he also spoke positively about the concept of putting a price on carbon. “If it is a social goal and social priority there, then let’s put a price over carbon emissions, and I think you can really see farmers show out in their carbon sequestration efforts," Perdue told reporters. 

USDA's plan calls for creation of a "comprehensive U.S. agriculture innovation strategy to align public and private research efforts."  A document outlining the agenda discusses gathering input on research needs and using that feedback “to seek alignment between the research goals of the scientific and innovation communities with the demand for tangible and relevant outcomes.”

USDA also turned the focus inward, pledging to more quickly incorporate new conservation practices into its existing programs and improve data collection and reporting.

While many climate policies such as the Green New Deal focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions as its measuring stick, USDA’s innovation agenda uses the term “environmental footprint.” Perdue said that’s meant to focus on carbon sequestration and water quality.

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“We think there are proven techniques where soil that’s harvested for annual crops can become carbon sinks using techniques like cover crops and no-till and putting organic matter back into the soil rather than letting it escape,” he said.

The agenda includes targets and benchmarks to measure progress, some of which have specific data points for measuring. For instance, USDA's goal is to increase agricultural productivity by 40% and cut nutrient loss by 30% nationally by 2050, but also mentions “investing in active forest management” and building upon a previously-set food waste reduction goal (down 50% by 2030).

The renewable fuels portion of the plan calls for achieving “market-driven blend rates of E15 in 2030 and E30 in 2050.” Although the Renewable Fuel Standard, the nation’s biofuel usage mandate, falls under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency and not USDA, Perdue says the goals can be “really one of the easiest to achieve” as consumers use higher blends of ethanol in their transportation fuels.

Ag groups welcomed the rollout, with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture saying its members plan to play a role in the mitigation measures.

“NASDA members have agreed — climate resiliency and adaptation must be a priority to make a lasting impact for the nation’s farmers and ranchers,” NASDA CEO Barb Glenn said in a statement. “State departments of agriculture share Secretary Perdue’s goal of responsibly meeting future food and energy demands.”

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said he was glad to see USDA acting on the matter, but said more needs to be done.

“We’re encouraged that USDA is moving to address the issue of sustainability. That being said, we have lost a lot of ground during the last several years of federal inaction. This is the single greatest threat to American farmers and national food sovereignty — one we should have been tackling head-on for the past 30 years. The White House and USDA need to treat this crisis with the urgency it deserves.”

USDA announced a similar effort in 2015, when then-Secretary Tom Vilsack rolled out 10 “Building Blocks for Climate Change” that aimed to achieve a combined 120 million metric tons of CO2 mitigation by 2025.

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