Editor's Note: This is part two in a two-part series on sustainable, climate-smart agriculture. You can read part one here.
As discussed earlier this week, a first-of-its-kind food and agriculture sector-wide vision will require a strong evidence base for the kinds of solutions that will work effectively and with economic viability for everyone involved—including those farming the land.
One of the sources of that evidence-based information will be the work of the Agriculture Climate Partnership (ACP) formed recently between USFRA and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), which brings scientists together with farmers to develop and test solutions to unlock the climate-saving potential in farmlands. The partnership envisions a world where every farmer and rancher is employing at least one climate-smart solution on every acre of farmland. The goal is for agriculture to be net-negative for greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
That is a tall order when agriculture contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, the second-largest emitter after the energy sector (which includes emissions from power generation and transport).
The ACP formally “is really an effort to try to bring farmers and the scientists together, to bring the data together, and try to move with one voice,” Sally Rockey, Executive Director of FFAR, told TriplePundit. “This would then accelerate our progress towards having agriculture as a solution to climate change into levels we've never seen before. But we really have to work together in order to create an evidence base with a lot of relevance that can be used on the ground as quickly as possible.”
Rockey acknowledges the challenges. One is the complexity of the agriculture system. “Every farm is different. Every field is different. Production practices are different. The environment is different. In order to get results that can be put at scale, you really have to build a system that takes into account and can deal with all those complexities,” she continued.
Such complexity requires robust, solid data. “That's why things such as data analytics, artificial intelligence, deep learning are going to be so necessary in this kind of project,” added Rockey. “Data is at the core of it because we have to have really sophisticated ways to tease through all these data sets and be able to understand what is relevant for a particular farmer in a particular situation, based on their environment, geography, practices, et cetera.”
Another challenge, Rockey noted, “is just how much we're willing to share our data and our results with each other; that question of who owns the data. Collaboration is at the core of this. It will require agreements among public and private partners about what is going to be able to be shared. We have to work out ways that you can work together and share as much as possible without diminishing the economic potential for those involved in there.”
It will be important, she insisted, to find “a coalition of the willing: those individuals who are willing to come in at the beginning and take the risk to join early.”
Joan Ruskamp, a Nebraska farmer and cattle feeder, agreed that there is enormous complexity to tackle in identifying solutions. She says what she appreciated in conversations with other stakeholders at Honor the Harvest is “is that there was not an expectation of a cookie cutter method,” she explained to 3p.
“Every farm is unique, our soils are different, our climate is different. What we do in 2020 is because of what's been tried and proven or failed these last 100 years. We didn't get here by accident in the way we grow corn beans, or feed cattle,” said Ruskamp. “It's all been a continuation of trying to find not only more efficiency, but less use of resources while we're producing safe food. I don't know any farmer that doesn't want to provide safe food because we're all eating it too, and so are our families, our parents, our grandkids, our friends, and our communities. We’re unique, but we're still very connected. We do live off the land and we need her to be healthy.”
Ruskamp’s concern going forward will be to make sure that climate-smart solutions are economically viable for everyone involved. She explained:
“Probably the piece that's been most lacking between all the segments is the economic viability. Every segment traditionally has focused on their own profitability, an approach that says, “I'm buying at lower cost and I'm selling at highest costs. And I'm not really concerned about the people in front of me or behind me, as long as I have a margin. We can't really honor a harvest if we're continually expecting some parts of the system to not be economically viable. Everyone has to be able to thrive, not just get by. We have to build a system that we can all thrive on. “
Ruskamp’s views are echoed by Anne Meis, who underscores the need for science and data. “We know those practices like minimum tillage, cover crop diversity, and livestock integration been proven to lead to healthier soil,” said Meis. “Now we need to strengthen the science behind methods of actually measuring the carbon draw down, and then couple that with the investment in finance to start accelerating these practices on the farm.”
Like Ruskamp, a more sustainable agriculture system in the future “has to make economic sense, in this recognition of the importance of the soil, given that farmers are caretakers of this amazing commodity. Is there a future in farming where producing the most bushels per acre is the ultimate goal because that's the economic pay?”
Finally, Ruskamp asked rhetorically, “Or is there a future in farming where farming practices have an economic value because they bring about soil health, with a dollar amount assigned to healthy soil and the science behind it that measures carbon draw-down. That’s a big leap into the future because it means changing the culture of farming. We need a paradigm shift in valuing agriculture for the ecosystem services it provides.”
Image credit: Benjamin Lehman/Unsplash
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.