It’s one thing to observe a renaissance. It’s another thing to predict it. And yet another to help try to make it happen.
Earlier this week, when speaking at the legendary Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he thinks a “renaissance” is taking place in agriculture, at least in his country.
He’s pumped up about the enthusiasm from farmers there for a $1-billion program created by the United States Department of Agriculture for pilot projects based on net zero carbon emissions and so-called climate-smart production.
The sector knows consumers and decision makers want to see it do more than it’s already doing to contribute to sustainability. Vilsack and the environmentally conscious Biden administration do too and want the US to take a global lead in climate change.
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So the government set aside the huge war chest for the agriculture sector to test approaches to food production that are sustainable but yet – and here’s the key – do not limit production.
In some camps, Europe in particular, it’s thought that fewer emissions would only happen if production was scaled back. According to this way of thinking, less acreage would reduce the need for fertilizer and other products that are blamed for emissions.
However, a couple of problems are inherent in that approach.
Less production means the farm economy will likely not grow, and food costs could go up as supplies drop and competition intensifies. That would be unpopular with consumers. It might work for countries that don’t depend much on their agriculture sector to keep their economy afloat.
However, for export-intensive countries like the US and Canada that derive a lot of income from selling commodities abroad, that approach is loaded with problems.
Besides, it’s immoral. The humanitarian organization CARE says nearly 830 million people around the world are affected by hunger right now. What kind of an export-oriented nation would cut back production while people are starving?
New approaches need investment and research. So Vilsack and his team decided to help the sector come up with its own ideas based on progressive rather than regressive solutions, and put money on the table to help it do so. We’ve seen some evidence of this in Canada too, but nothing like the billion-dollar commitment from Vilsack.
Excitement has been building since the fund was unveiled earlier this year, and submissions were invited. Vilsack announced just a few awardees at the Iowa farm show. The rest are coming sometime this month.
But with his inside knowledge of the 1,000-plus proposed projects that were submitted for funding, he’s confident the farming sector can advance sustainability and grow at the same time.
“I think we’ll get to net zero, and I think we’ll get there without sacrificing productivity. And I think we’ll see better farm income, and I think we’ll see more jobs in rural places,” he said. “We’re at a tipping point where I think the brightest and best days for American agriculture are ahead of us…I think we’re going to see enormous opportunities come out of this.”