With the recent-years emphasis on sustainability in agriculture, should there be sustainability provisions in the farm bill?
“I don’t think it’s necessary, or even desirable,” says Bruce Knight, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University.
“But,” he says, “we do need to be building an enabling platform that provides transparency. We need to take a look at our crop reporting mechanisms — are we collecting data based on a 1930s model or 2030? Is our research community stepping to the table? Are researching the needs for 2030? Where is the intersection of crop insurance and sustainability — how does crop insurance fit into the sustainability of farm operations?
“It’s OK, I think, that the current farm bill doesn’t include sustainability provisions,” Knight says. “I don’t think it should. But it’s time for us to have a conversation about it as we’re moving forward.
“Few people, if you talk with them about it, would list Title 1 of the farm program as a sustainability measure. But to me it is, because it’s what helps maintain the economic viability of farms and farm families year-in and year-out, as we weather good times and bad.
“When this farm bill was written, nobody expected the kind of slump in commodity prices that we’ve seen the last couple of years. Those Title 1 programs are helping to bridge the downturn we’re in.”
A third generation South Dakota farmer/rancher, Knight served as chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service from 2002-2006 before serving in the under secretary post through 2009. He then founded Strategic Conservation Solutions, which helps clients “navigate the maze of federal policy and regulatory processes” in Congress, the executive branch, and other government agencies.
Sustainability has far-reaching possibilities and varying interpretations, he says. “What is the future of sustainability? Is it fad? Is it going to be policy driven? What are its implications for agriculture?
“What I get excited about is the 5 billion new middle class mouths to feed by 2030. If they just drink one more glass of milk per day in China, how do you expand dairy production to accommodate that?
“There is a lot of talk now about the local food movement. But today, in Washington, D.C., it’s more efficient for me to buy grapes shipped from Chile in great bulk containers than it is to get them from California by truck. That is the sustainability of trade.
“To meet this market need, we’re going to need the sustainability of trade that recognizes that it’s more efficient to expand production of protein in the U.S. or North America, because it will have a smaller environmental impact than it would if it causes the conversion of tropical forests and marginal lands elsewhere in the world. This is the exciting thing about sustainability.”
Field to market is the preferred North American model today, Knight says. “It’s the one that is perhaps the strongest from the farmer perspective, and that’s largely because many farm groups have chosen to support it, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, as well as major corporations and universities, and agribusiness and conservation groups. They tend to understand the fact that it may be more efficient and sustainable to have greater production in the U.S. and North America as we move forward.”
OTHER MAJOR SUSTAINABILITY MOVEMENTS
Among major sustainability movements are the Sustainable Ag Initiative. “It has a lot of major international corporation ownership, with a very strong European influence,” Knight says. “It’s more a scorecard of practices: Are you doing this? Are you doing that?”
The Sustainability Consortium, he says, “is supposed to be global in nature, but everyone just looks on it as the Walmart initiative. Several ag groups used to be a part of it, but many have left. It appears to be easier to work within corporate America than in rural America, and there seems to be a tension between the two. But there is the reality that the largest grocer in America is heavily invested in the effort. So, what do you do when you have a philosophical difference? That is a really tough business or moral quandary.”
Knight noted that Kaylee K. Wells of Bradenton, Fla., senior environmental economics and management major at Mississippi State University and a 2016 participant in the William A. Demmer Scholars program for summer internships with federal agencies and non-governmental organizations that focus on natural resources, “devoted about a month to slicing and dicing the corporate sustainability reports of the 25 largest retail grocery retail companies in the country and 25 of the largest consumer products goods companies.
“What she found was that 18 of the largest consumer products goods companies set measurable sustainability goals that were broken down into categories of emissions, water quality, water quantity, energy, and waste. Six referenced renewable or low carbon energy in their goals. Coca-Cola, Campbell’s, Dr Pepper, Snapple, set measurable goals for all five of those categories. Four purchased environmental credits; 12 of the top 25 were affiliated with field to market and other programs; and five put their money on all three sustainability organizations.
“Ten of the 25 top grocery and convenience stores set same or similar goals for greenhouse gases, energy, and water quality; two referenced renewable or low energy; eight set measurable waste goals, mostly recycling of cardboard and organics; and four set measurable energy goals. Only Whole Foods had purchased environmental credits. Only Walmart was affiliated with Field to Market.”
There is a lot of interest these days in life cycle analysis, Knight says. “There are two groups of thought by economists — some support it, others think it’s snake oil and hogwash. But what it’s doing is providing a systems approach to sustainability, and that’s one of the things that’s been missing: How do you include repeatable, verifiable measures that are cost-effective? If the measures aren’t cost-effective, they become too much of a burden to carry.
IN SUSTAINABILITY, MANAGEMENT MATTERS
“We’ve done this in the dairy industry. What it all comes down to is, management matters. It isn’t the newest dairy farm, or the newest dairy processing plant, or the newest grocery store with the smallest energy use — it’s the best-managed ones.”
Life cycle analysis, Knight says, “also compels folks to deal with their firmly held convictions and the science associated with them. A number of times I’ve been able to sit down with folks who are firmly convinced that grass-fed beef has a smaller greenhouse gas footprint than corn-fed beef.
“With life cycle analysis, I’ve been able to say ‘Look at the science. Each has a different taste, a different flavor, and you should base your purchase on that — because the data conclusively show the environmental impact is larger for grass-fed beef than corn-fed beef.’
“’If I wean my calves in November, by May/June they’ve been harvested,’ I tell them. ‘They’re basically 13 months old. In a grass-fed operation, a steer or heifer is generating greenhouse gases and using water and feed for 31 months. Don’t take my word for it: Look at the science.’
“That’s what we’re able to do with life cycle analysis — to get folks to really drill down into the facts. These analyses should inform a policy decision or business decision, not lead to it. This is one of the challenges we face.
MEGA-TRENDS IN CONSERVATION
“These performance measures are going to be the change agent of the next generation of sustainability. They put metrics behind regulatory actions and voluntary actions. They help us move beyond random acts of conservation kindness, and they’re going to be key in the future.
“When I look at conservation,” Knight says, “I see some mega-trends. We need to think about the economics of these mega-trends. For instance, there is almost zero data on soil health — we really need to pay more attention to this, and we can. Cover crops are close to becoming a religious movement in some areas of the Midwest, but there’s a shortage of the economics of cover crops, the return on investment.
“No-till and enhanced water management can offer significant gains in efficiency. We need to stop thinking of manure as a waste and start thinking of it as a resource — how do we improve manure management efficiency; how to do we put more of that P and K in the right place at the right time?”
One of the greatest lessons in sustainability is transparency, Knight says. “The local foods movement is a surrogate for the trust factor. The Google generation is going to expect and demand transparency at a level that we baby boomers need to embrace, both on the demand side and the policy side.
“Today, those who are working on these issues — like our students in agricultural economics and agricultural sustainability — are giving us the tools to prove unequivocally that granddad and dad were right about the sustainability of their farming practices. And we can take this information into the executive suites of McDonald’s, ConAgra, Riceland, and other major corporations and prove it to their leaders. That’s the true power of what’s going on in this sustainability movement.”
(This is the second of two parts. Click here to read the first part.)