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Planting the Seeds for a More Resilient, Climate-Smart Agriculture System

By Amy Brown

We’re just days away from what will likely be an unusual Thanksgiving for many people in America, with a smaller safe “bubble” of trusted friends and family gathered around the table. So it’s worth pausing to think about how that bounty arrives at our tables and to ask: have the challenges to the food and agriculture system during the pandemic helped plant the seeds for a future with sustainable, resilient climate-smart agriculture?

A group of thought leaders from across the food and agricultural system including companies like Tyson Foods, Bayer, Cargill and McDonald’s grappled with that question and others, and their unified answer was an unequivocal yes.

They were among some 200 farmer, rancher, food, agriculture, finance, science and technology leaders who gathered for the virtual Honor the Harvest Forum, co-hosted by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action (USFRA) and The Aspen Institute.

The result was a first-of-its-kind food and agriculture sector-wide vision: A resilient, restorative, economically viable, and climate-smart agricultural system produces abundant and nutritious food, natural fiber and clean energy for a sustainable, vibrant and prosperous America.

Building resilience for future shocks

There is an upside to the insights that have emerged from the pandemic. “The experience of COVID over the last several months has amplified the urgency with which we need to approach this vision” according to Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of USFRA. She said USFRA’s research shows that the agriculture industry is currently on a trajectory to halve its carbon footprint in the next ten years.

That would help the sector build resiliency to manage future shocks and ensure climate-smart agriculture solutions are accessible and affordable for farmers and ranchers. Disaster events caused over $560 billion in damages in the United States from 2010-2019, according to USFRA, before food system players were in agreement that action towards that vision should not be delayed.

Joe Koss, President and CEO of food company Culver’s Franchising System, told TriplePundit, “Certainly, over the last several months with this COVID situation, we've learned we can’t take anything for granted. It’s important that we continue to support our farmers and everybody along the food supply chain because we know it can get disrupted very easily.”

For agriculture, the foundation of resilience is in the soil

Farmers and ranchers as uniquely positioned to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using on-farm practices that increase carbon storage and improve soil, which would help with resilience, Fitzgerald explained, “but they can't do it alone.”

The Honor the Harvest Forum “allowed leader to meet the moment,” she added. “And what was most notable to me was that we brought together farmers and ranchers with the entire food and agriculture industry, connecting them to the value chain and its leaders - making it a truly working sector. That’s how we get the leadership to move forward.”

To advance their sector-wide vision, the stakeholders made commitments individually and collectively to four outcome areas, including the restoration of the environment through agriculture that regenerates natural resources; a revitalization of our collective appreciation for farming; investments in the next generation of agricultural systems; and a focus on strengthening the social and economic fabric of America through agriculture.

The agricultural sector’s commitments – which include actions already in progress – will include outcomes through focused investments, optimized data, metrics and technology, and workforce development.

Anne Meis, owner and operator of Meis Farms in Nebraska, told 3p: “What we all want is healthy soil, which means healthier people and a healthier planet. That's the common goal.”

Tina Owens, Senior Director, Food & Agriculture Impact at Danone, among the 200 thought leaders at the Forum, told 3p, “What’s important is to continue to bring these diverse actors and thought leaders together on an ongoing basis to integrate the evidence-based information back into their own organization's way of doing business.”

Owens underscores how important it is to have farmers and ranchers at the table in figuring out the solutions. “No matter how much we reduced our internal emissions of our footprint, all the way through to the consumer, if we didn't address what was happening back in the field, either in the dairy barn or where the feed is grown, we would miss the biggest opportunity that's required of us to help convert our global greenhouse gas emissions.”

U.S. agriculture can play a key role for achieving the SDGs

An important way to realize the sector-wide agriculture vision is to bring attention to the outsized impact the sector has on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That was the impetus for a new report from USFRA.

According to the report, U.S. agriculture contributes to all 17 SDGs and has an outsized positive impact on a core group of seven. The aim is to have it serve as a basis for members of the food and agriculture value chain to acknowledge their own positive contributions, align on challenges that remain and advance specific opportunities to reduce environmental impacts – in the U.S. and in the developing world.

The findings were developed in accordance with the framework set out in the SDG Sector Roadmap Guidelines developed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). USFRA's partners in the creation of the report were United Soybean Board, WBCSD and sustainability consulting firm ERM.

“Sometimes in the U.S. the UN Sustainable Development Goals are too hard to understand, yet food and agriculture touch almost all 17. So we really needed a translation, a way to show how we fit into the story,” explains Fitzgerald. “We are the sector that can unlock all the Goals so it is really creating a call to action for leaders to work with the food sector and farmers and ranchers.”

Food and agriculture could be a “game-changer” in meeting 2030 goals

“The way that we use land globally matters significantly and needs to change significantly,” said David Bennell, Manager, Food & Nature, WBCSD North America. “I think it is more and more obvious that agriculture has probably the earliest opportunity, almost the lead user opportunity, to make some significant substantive improvements that will actually bring more financial value to farmers and demonstrate conservation benefits too. Not many other sectors can do that as quickly as agriculture.”

He added: “If we can get the entire value chain agreed to work collaboratively around specific metrics to advance responsible production and consumption, for instance, in some ways, that’s a potential game changer, looking at this in a way that emphasizes equitable value distribution across the chain. Now it gets interesting for everybody. So this report is a very practical and credible way to act on the vision.”

“More and more multinational food companies are showing interest in aligning with the sustainable development goals, and we want to understand their goals and how we might help them achieve it,” agreed Polly Ruhland of the United Soybean Board. “We also know that one of the primary ways that we get a sustainable planet is to solve the hunger problem. Hunger is an underlying cause of many sustainability challenges we have on the planet. And other goals like clean water, responsible production and consumption, climate, partnerships—all of these things are fundamental to sustainability. And our sector has the power to address each of them.”

Later this week: We’ll focus on how the Agriculture Climate Partnership is working to bring scientists and farmers together to develop and test solutions to unlock the climate-saving potential in farmlands.

Image credit: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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