By Rachel Lane
Washington, DC — Using historic context, speakers at the FFAR conference discussed opportunities and challenges facing farmers in the future.
The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research’s annual “Foster Our Future” forum was last week. Speakers included two former USDA agriculture secretaries, current members of the USDA, representatives for the House and Senate, and former Vice President Al Gore, a vegan cattle farmer and environmental activist.
“The greatest technology to get Co2 out of the air is called a tree and if you take that to scale it’s called a forrest,” Gore said. “When I was a child, one of my tasks was to find the best soil on the land… it was black and it was moist. It took 50 years before I realized it was black because of the carbon and it was moist because of the carbon.”
While some people blame farming for part of the climate change crisis, people are also beginning to realize that agriculture is also part of the solution, he said. Farmers should be encouraged to benefit financially from carbon sequestration and other conservation practices.
Of the last 20 years, 19 have been the hottest on record. The temperature of the ocean is increasing. As a result, more water is evaporating. There are more droughts, fires and flooding. Hurricanes are stronger and once in a century events are happening every few years, Gore said.
In the US, in 2019, farmers were unable to plant on almost 20 million acres, he said. There have been over $600 billion in insured losses in the last few years.
“We could see corn yields fall by one-third by heat stress alone,” he said.
Historically, the Americas and Australia produced a surplus of food. The EU and Russia would have extra production some years and not enough other years. Asia and Africa produced a deficit of food, Gore said. When there was a problem in one area, the other high producing areas produced enough to cover for any shortages. If there is a problem in two or more areas, it starts causing problems.
“Agriculture is part of the solution,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mi, ranking member of the Senate agriculture, nutrition and forestry committee. “We need to research, apply and scale up as quickly as we can.”
She said she would tell people she believed in science and they agreed. She believed GMOs were safe because that’s what the science showed and people would agree. When she said science is how she knows climate change is real, everyone would stop.
“Either we believe in science or we don’t,” she said.
She said 95 percent of the country’s fresh water surrounds Michigan. That water is warming faster than the oceans. At some point, cold water fish are going to disappear. Fishing in Michigan is a 7 billion dollar industry.
Weather in spring used to reliably warm-up enough to wake insects, then freeze, killing many of the bugs. The freeze isn’t happening anymore and bears are getting eaten by ticks, Stabenow said.
With the challenges, there are also opportunities. Michigan industries are building the parts for wind turbines and the state is one of the leaders for energy patents, she said.
In the late 60s, if you had told former USDA Secretary Mike Johanns that windmills would be scattered throughout Iowa, he wouldn’t have believed you, he said. Farmers used that land for production. Now, windmills are part of a diversified income and can be seen scattered across Iowa.
“Agriculture has always been ready for innovation and change and science,” he said. If the government would get out of the way and let farmers lead, young people might come back to the farm because they might be able to make a living as farmers.
He said more young people interested in agriculture. They are beginning to view the industry as a way to protect the environment and help the world by feeding people. Precision agriculture and other available technologies have energized people about the industry.
In order to use all the resources available, farms need to have broadband Internet. The challenge is getting service all the way out to the farms when private companies don’t see the value of providing the service, Johanns said.
“The future of agriculture and agrobiness is just really exciting and young people are gravitating towards it,” said Tom Vilsack, former USDA Secretary and current president of the Dairy Export Council.
It is important to keep people informed about the opportunities in agriculture. Farms don’t need to cover acres of fields. Some farms are on roof tops, or grow vertically. Farmers can make a living and help the world, he said.
“We’re facing challenge feeding world with climate changes,” he said. “You can sequester a lot more carbon in Brooklyn, Iowa than Brooklyn, New York.”
FFAR was established by the 2014 Farm Bill to increase investment in agriculture research and development through public-private partnerships.
China surpassed the US in public spending for research and development in agriculture a few years ago, said Bob Stallman, past president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and a FFAR board member. The government now spends twice as much on R&D as the US. It takes years of research for advances and part of supporting farmers is for the government to support research.
The world continues to push farmers to do more with less land, less labor, and fewer inputs, Stallman said.
To date, FFAR has awarded 130 grants, matching every publicly supplied dollar with private funding.