Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions

There’s no sustainability title in the 2014 Farm Bill, and there probably shouldn’t be one in the 2018 bill either. But as the next farm bill develops, we need to keep sustainability in the forefront of our thinking as we envision agriculture in the 21st Century.

Sustainability—making effective use of resources today while preserving those resources for those who come behind us—is a key concern along the supply chain from farmers through transporters, wholesalers, processors and retailers to consumers. Consumers want safe, wholesome food and fiber products. Retailers want to emphasize that they care about how the products they sell are produced, and family farmers and ranchers care about leaving a productive operation to their children and grandchildren.

I have long argued for sustainable intensification—maximizing production on the most productive land and discouraging the use of environmentally fragile, marginal land to produce food and fiber. This is an approach that makes good sense for individual farmers and for agricultural policy as a whole. As we look at commodities, conservation, crop insurance and research, we need to bear in mind the impacts of these programs on the three pillars of sustainability—environmental, economic and social impacts.

Should agricultural producers want a general seal of approval on sustainability, they could petition the Agricultural Marketing Service to develop a label, but I don’t really think that’s necessary. As the sustainability movement has matured, I think there’s less of a need for a provision in the farm bill that would support sustainability certification programs. However, it does make sense for USDA agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) to provide independent, nonbiased tools and data that can be used to provide sustainability measures for private sector initiatives.

I do think that as part of the development of the next farm bill, we probably should look beyond traditional environmental measures to some other issues related to sustainability—like food waste. We need the Economic Research Service to provide additional data on the extent of this challenge at the farm, grocer and consumer levels.

Perhaps we should revisit our traditional surveys and USDA reports. We are now using NASS data in ways never envisioned 40-50 years ago. Are we collecting the data we need for the 2030’s or still relying on stats that made sense in the 1930’s? NASS data could help protect anonymity, increase reliability and hold down the cost of providing information on sustainability.

As NRCS outcome measures on the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program improve, they could be useful to producers participating in sustainability efforts that give them a marketplace premium. We need to find ways to manage data and information to respond to today’s consumer and customer needs without overburdening individual farmers and ranchers with overlapping recordkeeping or jeopardizing data confidentiality.

On the research side, we need to take a systems approach to sustainability. The Agricultural Research Service can help here. We need to consider ways to better use blue, green and gray water. Using water to create food and fiber is a vital and appropriate use of resources, and we need to remind everyone of that. While at the same time we want to encourage and help farmers maximize the use of every drop and do what they can to improve water quality and quantity. In the same way, we need to focus on manure and fertilizer use efficiency so that we can maximize nutrient cycling while minimizing environmental loss.

In short, there is probably no need for legislation on sustainability, but the next farm bill offers an excellent opportunity to have a conversation on these issues, especially in light of the food needs of the 9 billion souls who will soon be inhabiting our planet. Let’s be thinking now what issues, concerns and innovations we want to bring to the table for consideration in that discussion. We don’t need a sustainable title in the farm bill, but we do need a sustainable farm bill, a bill that will help agriculture do better by society and provide for our families.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems


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