Growing Returns

Elite food consumers won’t make sustainable ag the norm. Here’s what will.

I recently participated on a panel discussion with a provocative title: “Elite Food Consumers: A Force for Environmental Good?” The panel was moderated by The Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel and organized by the Breakthrough Institute.

It was a great discussion because there is no doubt that consumer preferences are changing food – and not just for elite consumers. Even the larger and more affordable food retailers are responding to new consumer demands for how food is produced, what ingredients it contains and how products are marketed. But consumer choices alone won’t reshape the food system.

Minimizing the environmental footprint of agriculture – in ways that don’t hurt farmers’ profitability or consumers’ pocketbooks – will require additional levers. Read More »

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Farmers join international climate talks prepared to take action

Nearly one year ago, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. In the absence of federal government leadership, the agriculture sector is making its voice heard in the international climate change discussions taking place this week at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.

Farmers are on the front lines of a changing climate and increasingly extreme weather. They know that climate-smart agriculture is critical to ensuring their operations continue for generations to come. That’s why they’re pulling up a chair to take a seat at the global climate table. Read More »

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USDA newcomer Bill Northey has 3 big opportunities to scale ag resilience and productivity nationwide

In his new role at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Undersecretary Bill Northey will oversee agencies and programs that are vital to agricultural resilience and productivity, including the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency. His portfolio will include crop insurance, conservation, disaster assistance and producer lending services.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with Northey and have appreciated his collaborative approach, which I think will be an asset to USDA in pursuing gains in productivity and conservation.

As he leads ag sustainability efforts at USDA, Northey has three big opportunities to scale conservation and productivity innovations nationwide. Read More »

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$1 million USDA award expands public-private partnerships for ag sustainability

A collaboration between Smithfield Foods and Environmental Defense Fund has reduced fertilizer loss and improved soil health on more than 400,000 acres in the regions where Smithfield sources feed grain. That acreage is set to grow thanks to a new USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) award of $1,080,000.

The RCPP project will expand Smithfield’s ongoing grain sustainability efforts in North Carolina and scale up the program in Iowa, providing additional opportunities for farmers interested in improving their operations. Participating farmers will be supported by the combined efforts of 16 partner organizations, which include producer groups, government agencies, universities and nonprofits. Read More »

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3 reasons animal agriculture should be leading the way on supply chain sustainability

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that Americans will eat a record-breaking amount of meat in 2018 [PDF] – 223 pounds per person of chicken, pork and beef. That’s why I went to Atlanta last week to speak to environmental managers for the nation’s largest meat companies at a conference held by the North American Meat Institute.

My message for those I met? Animal agriculture should be leading the way in addressing the full impacts of their supply chains, from feed grain production all the way to the consumer.

Read More »

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How the Army prepared me for a conservation career in agriculture

I’ve always been mindful of the environment, but it never struck me that conservation was something you could focus on professionally. It was just something that you cared about.

That’s why my career until now has included a range of other pursuits – playing music professionally and teaching percussion to public school students, collecting and analyzing intelligence in the U.S. Army, and conducting social network analysis for the Department of Defense.

When U.S. military involvement (and thus my own involvement) in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to diminish, I took stock of what was important to me and what I wanted to spend the rest of my career doing. Read More »

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How John Deere and Cornell can ensure big data benefits farmers and the environment

John Deere combine harvesting soybeans.

5 gigabytes of data is the equivalent of up to 1.6 million emails. (Photo credit: Flickr user Judd McCullum)

Modern farm equipment comes more outfitted than a fully loaded car. These precision farming machines are furnished with multiple sensors that collect data during planting, nutrient application and harvest. A typical farmer now has 5 gigabytes of data, five seasons’ worth, in storage.

This trove of data promises to revolutionize farming, giving farmers unparalleled insights for business and stewardship decisions. Unfortunately, the data collected tends to stay on equipment hard drives, greatly reducing its usefulness to farmers.

A new partnership between John Deere and Cornell University promises to change that. Ag-Analytics, a Cornell data platform, syncs with John Deere’s Operation Center and makes it easier than ever for farmers to access and analyze farm data. Cornell is the first university to integrate with John Deere, and the analytical tools now available to farmers include a crop insurance estimator and yield and risk management forecasts. Read More »

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Improving water quality is a shared responsibility

Iowa farmer Denny Friest surveys his fields from his combine.

Iowa farmer Denny Friest (Photo credit: John Rae)

I spent the summer meeting with farmers, commodity groups and food companies in the Midwest to discuss collaborative conservation approaches. Whether we were in Missouri, Iowa or Minnesota, water quality was top of mind.

Agriculture has a large impact on water quality – the sector is the source of 70 percent of the nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River and cause dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have made big strides on implementing and scaling conservation measures to improve water quality and agriculture’s overall environmental footprint. Unsung heroes like Tim Richter, Kristin Duncanson and Denny Friest are constantly fine-tuning nutrient and soil management with new efficiency tools, finding better ways to implement cover crops or reduce tillage, installing wetlands and buffers, and introducing new crops into their rotations. Read More »

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How an innovative corn supply chain model can empower companies to help farmers

Grain elevator. Credit: Flickr user Wilson Hui

A new study out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that trying to make supply chains more sustainable is not for the faint of heart, especially when it comes to food – and corn in particular.

Companies are keenly aware that consumers care about where their ingredients come from and how they were grown, and that improving efficiencies along the supply chain can be good for business. But the raw ingredients at the end of those chains are typically produced by a vast network of farmers who bring their corn to regional grain elevators and then sell their crops to grain traders. This is just the start of a lengthy and complicated process that can be challenging for food companies to disentangle and understand, let alone influence to become more sustainable.

That’s why the new study, which focuses on a corn supply chain model developed by the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise (NiSE), can be an important tool for empowering food companies with information that can help them tackle the tough job of supply chain sustainability.  Read More »

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Why we need a new era of collaborative conservation

This year’s Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the largest ever recorded, affecting 8,776 square miles – similar in size to the state of New Jersey.

Agriculture – from fertilizers and livestock production – is a major source of the nutrients that cause these harmful algal blooms in our lakes and coastal areas. Fertilizers are required to grow food, but we know that making farming practices more efficient and creating natural buffers and filters around farms can reduce runoff.

Farming is already risky business, with unpredictable weather, tough global competition and fluctuating commodity prices.

Implementing conservation practices at scale without hurting growers’ productivity requires understanding the challenges of different sectors and bringing together their expertise and investment. It’s a collaborative effort, and we must recognize that we are all working around a common goal: a more sustainable food system.

This month, Environmental Defense Fund is launching a series of public events – in Bozeman, St. Louis, and Des Moines – to highlight, advance, and celebrate collaborations among private landowners, food and agriculture companies, policy makers, and the public.

Read More »

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