Answering agriculture's critics
I’m a big believer in taking the high road. When media present inaccurate or incomplete portrayals of U.S. agriculture, my job and the job of Farm Bureau is to help them understand where they went wrong and to set the record straight. We had our work cut out for us with a recent New York Times opinion video. It was so disappointing to see a respected media outlet present a distorted picture of agriculture without so much as acknowledging that farmers play an essential role in stocking America’s pantries.
AFBF jumped into action. We drafted a response and had a productive conversation with decisionmakers there, but unfortunately, they declined to accept my guest essay, which provides a more complete and honest picture of agriculture. What a disservice to their readers and to the disappearing tradition of honest debate. So, I’ll use my own platform to share my response.
Before I do, I’ll note that I’m intentionally omitting a link to their piece. These days, media measure success in clicks and views and this piece simply isn’t worthy of your time or their publication. Still, it’s important to set the record straight.
I want to be clear about something else. People have every right to their opinions about agriculture whether positive or negative – even the New York Times. It’s just disappointing that the New York Times would provide such an incomplete and misleading portrayal of agriculture in order to win the day. They’re better than that.
So, here’s the rest of the story. American agriculture leads the world in climate-smart farming, making up just 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, much lower than transportation, electricity generation and industry. It’s not by chance that America has made progress quicker than our international counterparts. Through public and private partnerships and investments in innovative technologies, America’s farmers and ranchers have been able to reduce per-unit emissions of livestock over the past 30 years by 8-26% depending on the species. We are able to grow more food using fewer resources than ever before.
Advances have been made in carbon sequestration as well. 140 million acres are enrolled in voluntary conservation programs. To put that in perspective, there are more privately owned acres reserved for conservation than the size of California and New York combined. The use of no-till or low-till planting methods, which means the top soil is disturbed as little as possible, is now used on more than half of the corn, cotton, soybean and wheat planted across the nation. That’s more than 200 million acres. And, the use of cover crops continues to grow, increasing 50% between 2012 and 2017. These practices not only reduce the amount of water, fertilizer and pesticides needed for crops, they help keep carbon trapped in the soil and out of the atmosphere.
The beef industry, which has become a target in the environmental debate, is also making great strides. Beef production accounts for just 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, much lower than the global average. Almost half of all farm acres are used as permanent pastureland. Those lands are good for raising cattle, and the soil remains undisturbed, which ensures it can continue retaining carbon. It’s estimated that the land cattle graze contains 10-30% of the carbon stored in soil, making them crucial for carbon sequestration.
These advances are being made in all 50 states and Puerto Rico by families on both large and small farms. Critics like to point the finger at so-called “factory farms,” but the reality is, of the just more than 2 million farms in America, almost all of them are family owned and 1.9 million of them are classified by the government as small family farms. We need operations of all sizes if we are to feed a country that is about to surpass a population of 330 million people and a world that will soon pass the 8 billion mark.
We will meet the challenges ahead while protecting the environment by working together. It’s one of the reasons AFBF was a founding member of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance. The group, now more than 80 member organizations strong, consists of agriculture, food, forestry, sportsmen and environmental groups. Naysayers might claim Farm Bureau and groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy don’t have anything in common, but we all saw the need to break through historical barriers to find solutions to our environmental challenges. Together, FACA came up with more than 40 recommendations that are having a real impact, helping to shape the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which passed in the Senate with bipartisan support, and USDA’s new Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities pilot programs, which are a direct outcome of FACA’s work according to Secretary Vilsack. Both respect the role of farmers.
Together we can be proud of the advancements we have made in climate-smart practices and our commitment to continuous improvement. Can we do more? Absolutely. But it will take all of us, not just the farmers and ranchers, to create a better world. That doesn’t happen by mandates or by perpetuating a false narrative. It will happen through honest dialogue about investments in innovation and partnerships with farmers.
It’s easy to forget that we live in a country with an abundance of safe, healthy and affordable food. Without the worry of where our next meal will come from, we’re free to pursue our dreams and careers. Agricultural advances give many that freedom with only 2 percent of the population now supplying food to the other 98 percent – a complete reversal over the decades.
It’s really important for us, as farmers, to deliver the message about our commitment. Remember that 87% of the public trusts farmers. However, very few understand how food is produced. Farmers are in the best position to provide an honest window into agriculture. Sharing real, positive stories from the farm is one of the most effective ways to counter misinformation. America is listening. Let’s reassure all those who put their faith in us that we are humbled by it and determined to do the right thing for our land and our animals.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.