Government research into a wide range of areas, and standardization of data, will be needed if USDA is to implement its 30-year plan to increase U.S. agricultural production by 40% while cutting ag's environmental footprint in half. 

That’s according to comments on USDA's Agriculture Innovation Agenda from a broad cross-section of agricultural and environmental groups, companies, researchers and others, many of which emphasized the importance of tackling climate change and the need for better tools to measure carbon sequestration.

“Missing from the [AIA] is a clear goal related to the most pressing issue facing agriculture, namely the climate crisis,” said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which urged USDA to aim higher than simply a reduction in the environmental footprint by 2050. The plan should include an “explicit goal” of reaching net-zero GHGs from ag “in the shortest time feasible," the group said. 

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates agriculture contributed about 10% of GHGs in the U.S. in 2018. The AIA sets out goals of reducing nutrient loss by 30% nationally by 2050, and food loss and waste in half by 2030 (using 2010 as the bench mark).

“This agenda is a strategic, department-wide effort to better align USDA’s resources, programs, and research to provide farmers with the tools they need to be successful," Ag Secretary Sony Perdue said in February in announcing the agenda. "We are also continually mindful of the need for America’s agriculture industry to be environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable to maintain our position as a leader in the global effort to meet demand."

NSAC also said that a 40% increase in ag output “might perpetuate overproduction, low farm prices, unsustainable and unhealthful diets, an overreliance on export markets, and extreme food waste.”

“Can we optimize production and farming system diversity to achieve a more desirable outcome of sustainable diets, low food waste, and balanced supply and demand?” asked NSAC. In a listening session NSAC held to gather input on the AIA, one farmer said, “We are raising good food to nourish people, not commodities. The ‘commodities’ focus has driven half of my neighbors out of business and harmed our communities.”

Debbie Reed

Debbie Reed, Ecosystem Services Market Consortium

The National Farmers Union also raised concern about the production target, saying U.S. ag policy in some cases encourages overproduction of certain products. “Many farmers have stocks of corn, soybeans, dairy, and other goods that they cannot sell, which has pushed prices below the cost of production,” NFU said.

But the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, which is developing a market for carbon and water credits, said USDA twin goals are “broadly supported in the agriculture and food sector.” In order to achieve that, however, USDA needs to standardize the way it collects data, ESMC said.

Just within USDA, “there are multiple GHG quantification and water quality models preferred for different uses and by different agencies,” ESMC said. “Rather than making USDA data available for only certain USDA and other tools or models, USDA should make data available for all users and all quantification models, and should standardize the way the data is collected and publicly shared to ensure that publicly-funded actions benefit the broadest potential audience of users working to benefit the agricultural sector constituency.”

USDA acknowledged the importance of data-gathering when announcing the agenda, saying that while it closely tracks data on yield, “on the environmental side, there’s some catching up to do.”

Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture said that data on conservation practices is "collected only intermittently and not on a regular schedule, or often leave gaps in the cropping systems that are included,” the group said. “This has led to a patchwork of practice information for many crops that hinders research and understanding of actual adoption of practices on farm.”

Supporters of Agricultural Research agreed, saying that existing data collection efforts are "mostly dispersed and largely non-standardized, which hampers the development of integrated models for use in research and farm management.”

Agricultural scientific societies including agronomists, plant biologists, breeders and others urged USDA to put money into education. “USDA should invest heavily in K-12 programs, and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative should double its budget for direct funding for graduate student research and programs from 1.5% to 3-5%, being sure to include underrepresented groups,” the groups said.

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Addressing an area that received some recent attention with a report from the Environmental Defense Fund, agribusiness giant Cargill said growers need to be incentivized to adopt climate-friendly practices, urging the Federal Crop Insurance Program to provide incentives to growers “when they undertake risk-reducing conservation practices that sequester carbon and increase soil health.

“Reviewing farm lending and credit programs and looking at ways to extend financing to farmers who want to invest in technology and tools to enable their transition to more sustainable production systems” also are needed, Cargill said.

Some groups said farmers would be more willing to cooperate on addressing climate change through the use of voluntary approaches. “The entire agriculture industry, including beef producers, support the development of a free-market system that will compensate producers for the environmental benefit they create,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said.

As to how agriculture can reduce its environmental footprint, many commenters mentioned both plant breeding and cover crops. The American Seed Trade Association said that with land for crop production becoming “progressively more limited,” there will be more pressure to increase yields, and “genetic gain for yield and yield stability will thus become more important with a growing global population.”

With food production increasingly occurring “on a more regionalized basis,” ASTA said “food crops will need to be adaptive to a varying range of land and soil.”

Cover crops, which have been growing in popularity throughout the country, received a lot of attention in the comments. Field to Market said that USDA could help strengthen their viability “by facilitating secondary markets as a new source of revenue for farmers.”

The American Soybean Association said “with the enormous diversity of cover crops available … secondary markets could provide sources of revenue for growers and provide new sources of food and feed, fiber, or feedstocks for biofuels or other end uses.”

Biotechnology also was cited as a tool to meet USDA's goals. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and Consumer Federation of America said "USDA should establish government policies that promote the use of gene editing to develop products that provide broad societal benefits in a wide range of crops and traits." 

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