A green future for agriculture all Americans can get behind
Advertorial by President and CEO John Piotti shares why agriculture can bring Americans together yielding a future that promises sufficient food and a livable planet. See the article in Politico here: www.politico.com/sponsor-content/2020/11/24/a-green-future-for-agriculture-all-americans-can-get-behind/
Farming all too often divides Americans, pushing us to pick sides: Big versus small. Conventional versus organic. Meat versus vegetables. Beyond this, many urban and suburban consumers increasingly segregate farmers into two camps — the earnest local farmers they encounter at the farmers market or see in photos at their natural food store; and the far-less understood (and thus suspect) farmers who raise commodity products like corn and soy, often in Red-state hinterlands — farmers who many people inaccurately believe are getting rich off federal subsidies and don’t give a hoot about the environment.
At American Farmland Trust, we see agriculture differently. For 40 years, we’ve worked to advance conservation agriculture on farms of all types and sizes, and in so doing, have witnessed firsthand how much farmers and ranchers care about the land, wildlife, and the broader environment — even if the economic system in which they operate often prevents them from doing all they wish. At the same time, we see agriculture as one of the few issues that can bring Americans together. We all eat. And we can all get behind a future that promises sufficient food and a livable planet.
How do we get there? The answer, we believe, lies beneath our feet. Healthy soil is the key to an environmentally and economically sustainable future.
In late 2018, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that we will never reach the goals of the Paris Climate Accords simply by reducing emissions — as essential as that is. We must also capture atmospheric carbon and return it to the soil, using so-called regenerative farming practices. These include cover crops, crop rotations, reduced tillage, various livestock grazing strategies, and more. Such practices rebuild soil health by increasing organic matter, supporting microbial life, boosting water holding capacity and reducing erosion. They simultaneously help farmers cope with key challenges wrought by our climate crisis (such as drought and extreme rains) and help combat climate change.
AFT’s research shows that adoption of just two regenerative practices — cover crops and no-till — on 70 percent of America’s cropland is equivalent to removing 53 million cars from the road. And agriculture’s contribution to offsetting emissions could be higher if additional regenerative practices are stacked on top of those two — and higher still if suitable practices are also adopted on pasture and rangeland.
Regenerative practices also make economic sense. Recent case studies document that farmers who adopted new soil health practices received three dollars back for every dollar invested.
Given these environmental and economic benefits, why isn’t adoption greater? Why, for instance, is only 6 percent of US cropland utilizing cover crops? The reasons are complex, but much of it boils down to the fact that farms operate on tight margins. Many farmers are rightfully worried about any change in practice, however promising it may appear, since it could put them out of business. Other farmers might be willing to take the risk on the hope of a future payback, but simply cannot afford to do so.
Yet solutions are emerging. Forward-looking food companies like General Mills and Danone are helping farmers within their supply chains adopt regenerative practices — while other companies are experimenting with carbon markets to compensate farmers for the carbon they sequester.
Federal policy has a major role to play. The Growing Climate Solutions Act could accelerate use of private carbon markets by involving USDA. The next Farm Bill could be used to elevate regenerative practices significantly. Meanwhile, Congress could utilize a future economic stimulus bill to begin that process sooner. And the Biden Administration can take major strides without congressional action, including a national cover crop initiative.
Yet there are critics. Several progressive organizations oppose carbon markets and have questioned regenerative agriculture’s ability to fight climate change. They overlook the science — hundreds of long-term field experiments across the globe documenting how these practices draw down atmospheric carbon at a scale that makes a real difference.
No, regenerative agriculture isn’t being oversold — it’s being underutilized.
These critics do make one valid point — how the benefits of building soil carbon are not permanent, because carbon can be released back into the atmosphere if the land doesn’t continue to be wisely managed. But why reject a useful tool because it’s impermanent? Rather, we should take steps to ensure the land remains in farming and is stewarded well.
Thus, regenerative practices alone are not enough. We also need to protect our best farmland from development and help ensure that our farmers can succeed financially while following better practices. Only through this comprehensive approach — targeting regenerative practices, the land itself, and people who work the land — will farming ever fulfill its promise to heal our planet.
During a time when consensus is rare, let’s embrace agriculture as the unifier it can be. For all our sakes.