I wrote late last year that sustainability was dominating the headlines. I also found a couple of things I wrote from almost a decade ago referring to sustainability as being the buzzword du jour. If it was a buzzword 10 years ago and headline-dominating a few months ago, I think behemoth would be an appropriate term today.
The war in Ukraine, interest rate hikes and supply chain disruptions (all of which are related, to some extent) aside, nothing is capturing more imaginations — or drawing more ire — than agricultural sustainability and farmers’ impact on climate change.
It goes without saying there are risks for agriculture in this discussion. These will always exist, particularly when there’s a contingent of anti-agriculture voices that often seeks to use supposed common ground as cover for attacks aimed at furthering its agenda at farmers’ expense. The current discussion surrounding sustainability is no exception, and we must all be on guard against such attacks. However, can anyone recall a situation where farmers were seen as the only solution to a global crisis? Agriculture is the only industry that sequesters carbon day in and day out through the course of normal business operations, and it’s the only industry that relies on environmental stewardship to maintain the future productive capacity of its resources.
But, as I’ve written extensively, carbon isn’t the only piece of the equation. Nitrogen fertilizer application makes up a more significant portion of the overall environmental footprint, given the emissions associated with its production — and the fact that it leaches, volatilizes and runs off after it’s applied, and the crop has taken up whatever portion is needed to produce a yield. This is an area where sorghum shines particularly brightly. Given its large, nutrient-scavenging root system coupled with sorghum farmers’ status as unmatched leaders in adherence to conservation tillage, sorghum is well-positioned to minimize this type of nitrogen loss.
Another area where sorghum shines is in water use efficiency. I covered this subject in detail last month, so I won’t rehash it. Farmers just need to know that if we’re headed back into a long- to medium-term drought, sorghum is being used with smashing success to maintain yields in crops like corn and cotton by enabling more efficient use of irrigation water from south of Lubbock, Texas, all the way to northwest Kansas. We’ve seen field yields of all crops doubling when water timing is managed with an early sorghum crop, and this owes largely to the incredible water-use efficiency of sorghum.
What does all this mean from a practical sustainability policy or climate policy perspective? It’s still a bit hard to say, but we’re learning more and more each day, and we’re going to know a lot more over the next couple of years. As many know already, USDA is preparing to spend a billion dollars on pilot programs that promote and support climate-smart commodity production.
What is a climate-smart commodity? Good question. That’s what this program is going to tease out. There will be a lot of opportunities for farmers of all kinds to participate, including sorghum farmers right here in the sorghum belt. Most pilot programs (at least those with which I’m familiar) will pay farmers to adopt certain practices, with the payment being based on the practice’s value in an ecosystem services market.
As always, I’ll wrap up by urging farmers not to get caught up in the politically charged nature of the debate over climate science. Although there are risks, this discussion brings with it countless opportunities for agriculture; and given that the vast majority of farmers already operate highly sustainable farms, U.S. agriculture could be on the brink of a special era.
Duff is executive vice president for National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sorghumduff.