Last week the USDA unveiled it’s new Agriculture Innovation Agenda, a “sustainability” plan with the goal of achieving a 50% reduction in the environmental footprint of US agriculture by 2050, as Politico reports.
Sonny Perdue announced the new policy at an annual agency gathering in Virginia on February 20, 2020, or 02/20/2020 – an appropriate date given the fancy numbers the agency had to use to make this plan work.
A key example: USDA’s plan reaches these lofty goals by supporting technical innovations – code for more biotech, fertilizers, and chemicals- that will push yields 40% higher. (Side note- not sure how the USDA will foster innovation when suffering from “brain drain” at the Economic Research Service, or ERS – a key department that provides economic data and analysis for the agency. Perdue forced the ERS to move to Kansas City last year, which resulted in 2/3 of the employees quitting rather than relocating.)
With 40% bigger yields in the equation, when USDA crunches the numbers the “environmental emissions” are amortized over more bushels, making it seem like a cut in environmental impact.
One small problem — yield goals on many conventional farms are already too high to sustain plant health and soil health, while leading to major adverse impacts on the environment. More chemicals per unit of production, on already very intensive farms, reduces environmental impacts only when using USDA math and a heavy dose of mythology.
Already, farmers can’t grow successful crops without a whole array of seed treatments, fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides due to poor soil health and an explosion in pest resistance. What recent research is showing is that the only way to reduce ag environmental impacts is to diversify rotations, plant cover crops routinely, and back off unsustainable yield goals. Farmers may harvest 20% fewer bushels of corn or beans/acre, but will get much higher prices because of the drop in production and rise in market prices.
Plus we won’t be saturating the landscape with agricultural chemicals that have a whole host of unintended environmental consequences to water quality, biodiversity, pollinator health, and our carbon footprint. And then there is the public health cost to farmworkers and consumers; many of these agricultural chemicals have been shown to cause cancer and impact reproduction, childbirth, and neurodevelopment.
Under this new agricultural system, farmers will profit, rural communities will profit, the environment profits, and the government profits. And, it doesn’t even take fancy math or mythology to get us there.
So why does this change loom like an oasis, now you see but it ain’t really there?
Catherine Boudreau, “USDA to unveil plan to cut farms’ environmental impact in half by 2050,” Politico, Date Posted: February 19, 2020, Date Accessed: February 27, 2020.
USDA, “USDA Agriculture Innovation Agenda,” February 2020.