Vilsack and Glickman: The next 30 years are critical for agriculture's future
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." — Native American proverb
Never have these words carried more urgency as we are faced with the threats posed by climate change.
For U.S. farmers and ranchers, who are on the front lines in the battle against climate change, tremendous challenges lie ahead: how to nourish an unprecedented population while protecting and enhancing the world in which we all live.
A global population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, requiring roughly 70% more food than what is currently produced.
The shrinking of farmable land. According to American Farmland Trust, cropland in the United States disappears at a rate of 175 acres per hour due to business and residential expansion.
And all in the face of climate change. The U.S. Global Change Research Program reports that the effects of climate change are already being felt. Increases in average temperature, extreme heat conditions, heavy rainfall, droughts and extreme weather events contribute to excessive runoff, flooding, and soil erosion, loss of soil carbon and reduce the availability and quality of water.
The next 30 years promise to be the most important in the history of agriculture.
The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) has developed a short film that underscores the important role agriculture plays in combating climate change. The film, “30 Harvests,” documents the challenges two farmers face while embracing the opportunity to positively impact the environment. Farmers are truly the change agents that will help feed an unprecedented population while solving for climate change.
However, in order to achieve a truly sustainable food system, the entire food value chain must work together. We need a drumbeat of contagious collaboration.
This partnership has already begun. Recently, leaders across agriculture, technology, finance and investment, and food companies gathered at a 1,400-acre farm outside Washington, D.C. for the Honor the Harvest Forum, sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and the Aspen Institute. The gathering featured working sessions among stakeholders that centered around sustainable food systems.
Additionally, we need all the creative minds to address this issue through science. USFRA is partnering with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) to bring science to the table that addresses climate change head on. Studies reveal that agricultural soils have the capacity to draw down and store carbon through the photosynthesis process, farmers and ranchers continually steward water use and quality, and greenhouse emissions are being reduced in animal production through truly inventive ways. Continual improvement in production practices through science has the potential to stabilize and reverse common climate trends.
By focusing on the capacity of carbon sequestration of agricultural lands, and new emission reduction technologies already being used on farms and ranches, U.S. farmers and ranchers can be the first to reduce emissions connected to agriculture and eventually get to a net zero or better.
This is an opportunity we have now to ensure that families that are connected and rooted to the land, whether small farms or production agriculture operations, are in a position to say to their children and grandchildren, yes, you do have an amazing opportunity and future in agriculture. Every farmer, every acre, and every voice is needed to plant the future for the next generation.
Tom Vilsack is former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (2009-2017), and currently the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
Dan Glickman is former Secretary of Agriculture (1995-2001), and currently the executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program.
Co-signing this column are Erin Fitzgerald, CEO, U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, and Sally Rockey, executive director, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.