Perdue Ag Innovation.jpg USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Secretary Perdue launches ag innovation initiative

USDA looks to help increase ag production 40% by cutting environmental footprint in half by 2050.

Essentially the story of American agriculture is doing more with less, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. On Thursday, while speaking at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Outlook Forum, Perdue announced a new Agriculture Innovation Agenda with the goal to stimulate the innovation of American agriculture by increasing production 40% while cutting the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050.

The Agriculture Innovation Agenda aligns USDA’s resources, programs and research to position American agriculture to better meet future global demands while cutting the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050. The strategy will set benchmarks for food loss and waste, carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions, water quality and renewable energy.

The announcement comes one day after the unveiling of Farmers for a Sustainable Future, an initiative of more than 20 different farm groups to serve as a primary resource for policy-makers as they consider sustainability and climate policies important to the agriculture industry.

Perdue noted that despite media reports of USDA’s departure from scientific research pertaining to agriculture’s role in climate change and climate variability, there’s been no closing down to stop this research. The initiative hopes to develop a U.S. agricultual innovation strategy that aligns and synchronizes public- and private-sector research.

Other goals of the new focus from USDA is to align the work of customer-facing agencies and integrate innovative technologies and practices into USDA programs. The third component is to conduct a review of USDA productivity and conservation data. USDA already closely tracks data on yield, but on the environmental side, there’s some catching up to do.

Measuring progress

Perdue noted, “If you don’t keep score, you’re just practicing.” He also said he intentionally set the goals as a way to stretch. “I’d rather go big and miss a little bit,” he said of the aspirational goals.

By 2030, USDA hopes bring to reality a 50% reduction in food loss and waste.

The benchmarks also call to enhance carbon sequestration through soil health and forestry, leverage the agriculture sector’s renewable energy benefits for the economy and capitalize on innovative technologies and practices to achieve net reduction of the agriculture sector’s current carbon footprint by 2050 without regulatory overreach.

Arable agriculture is blamed for greenhouse gas emissions, yet Perdue noted that soils can become carbon sinks when using techniques such as cover crops and no-till to return organic matter back to the soil.

The initiative also calls for an increase in the production of renewable energy feedstocks and sets a goal to increase biofuel production efficiency and competitiveness to achieve market-driven blend rates of 15% for transportation fuels in 2030 and 30% for transportation fuels by 2050. Perdue said with the move to E15 rather than E10 in most cars, this may be the easiest to achieve.

Growth Energy chief executive officer Emily Skor praised USDA’s initiative and for setting the clear goals. “Biofuels are a critical piece of meeting the demands of our future transportation needs while lowering our carbon footprint,” Skor said in a statement.

The final benchmark includes reducing nutrient loss 30% nationally by 2050.

More research

The announced sustainability initiative also comes after the rollout of a “Science Blueprint” in early February that listed climate adaptation as one of its five primary themes.

The Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation said more science is desperately needed. The weather challenges are far outpacing the innovations capable in the field. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine released a comprehensive blueprint for transforming agriculture so it can face the challenges of the coming decades. USDA’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda will work from this blueprint to focus its initial work on the most important opportunities.

Read more about the Agriculture Innovation Agenda here.

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