Farmers stand on the front lines of a changing climate. Even though disproportionately affected by extreme weather events like droughts and floods, farmers continue to be convenient scapegoats for those who abandon scientific data in favor of hyperbolic statements and catchy statistics. Animal-based food products are condemned as environmentally harmful, and broad pledges and emission reduction goals are delivered as edicts rather than collaborative invitations. 

Agricultural systems currently contribute about 13% of all global emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. For the world to meet its ambitious environmental goals, develop efficient and healthy ecosystems and improve the quality of life that our food system provides, working alongside farmers is a requirement—not an option. While some are focused on placing blame, farmers and ranchers are enacting real solutions against a changing climate—all on their own. 

Farmers and ranchers are taking steps toward a sustainable future by sequestering carbon using soil management techniques, capturing methane emitted by livestock, and more efficiently using fertilizers. Practices like planting cover crops, reforestation, and rotational grazing can also tap the carbon-storage potential of our country’s farmland. Despite debate over sustainable solutions plants and soil remain the only proven technologies to remove CO2 from the air. Currently, American soil systems sequester 100 times more carbon than is emitted in the U.S. each year. Agriculture and nature-based solutions have the potential to become the first, and only, industry to be truly carbon negative. 

In the United States, 40% of the nation’s total land area is made up of farmland, stewarded by farmers. These lands are hyper-interdependent across commodities and ecosystems. Every acre has the potential to be unleashed as solutions to climate mitigation, but farmers can’t do it alone. If we are to effectively respond to climate change, we must give farmers a seat at the table, rebalance the agriculture value chain, and provide financial vehicles tailored to individual farmers’ needs. Farmers are part of the solution, not the problem. 

Farmers and ranchers represent a vast eco-workforce with intimate knowledge of the land and climate. They have the experience to be a powerful force in solving the world’s greatest climate problems, yet continue to be marginalized from critical environmental discussions. And as the first ones impacted by climate change, they often carry the lion’s share of the financial burdens when droughts or floods devastate their land and crops. 

Currently, power asymmetries mean farmers experience financial unpredictability as risks and benefits are inconsistently distributed along the value chain. Too often farmers, many of whom are small, independent family operators, are expected to incur high levels of debt despite low profit margins—all while facing limited access to healthcare, education and other critical resources like broadband. Even as they carry this disproportionate risk, the food and agriculture industry contributes approximately $7 trillion to the nation’s economy.  

Flexible financial mechanisms that support direct investment tailored to farmer needs and risk-based financial vehicles that support producers are critical to ensure continued ecosystem services. Farmers are economic actors, and the market must work for them so that they not only survive, but thrive. We must work toward a balanced agriculture value chain that factors in the stark realities our farmers face in making long-term financial decisions with increased financial unpredictability and climatic shocks. 

The world has been fighting climate change with one arm tied behind its back for too long. Farmers and ranchers are already doing their part in meeting the moment by leading global sustainability initiatives. They possess immense untapped potential to blunt the worst effects of climate change, yet each harvest season it grows more challenging to provide for our food security and nature-based solutions. We must offer them a seat at the table, improve direct investment through financial risk mitigation tools and ensure our farmers are equal partners in the value chain. 

Threats and blame do not push us towards a sustainable future. Division will only marginalize those with the capabilities to provide real solutions. Working together is our only solution and we can’t afford to wait.

Erin Fitzgerald serves as the CEO of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action (USFRA), a 501(c)(3) organization that represents over 1.6 million farmers and ranchers across the country with a shared vision of co-creating sustainable food systems and a belief that bold action is needed. USFRA drives a broad range of projects that advance meaningful action and results in the co-creation of solutions for sustainable food production, climate change, and economic sustainability. USFRA is serving as the secretariat for a Decade of Ag, a shared vision for the food and agriculture sector, now endorsed by 150 leaders. Fitzgerald is also recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture and an Aspen Institute First Movers Fellow.

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