USDA is aiming to bump up food production while limiting pollution

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Farm runoff into rivers and lakes is one area that needs to be addressed if agricultural pollution is to be curtailed. Photo by iStock

The U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out an agenda it believes will benefit both agriculture and the environment in the long run.

The department recently unveiled its “Agriculture Innovation Agenda,” which is focused on increasing U.S. agricultural production by 40% while cutting the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050.

“This initiative is about supporting farmers and helping their bottom lines,” a USDA spokesperson said. “We know there will be a growing demand for the food, fiber and fuel we produce, so we want to use this initiative to help farmers be more productive. Innovation is the key to helping producers capitalize on future demand.”

To reach that goal, the USDA is aiming to provide resources, programs, research tools and technologies for farmers to meet the demand.

According to the USDA, it will create a strategy that aligns with public and private research efforts. Some of the practices it plans on implementing are from a 2019 National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report “Science Breakthroughs to Advance Food and Agricultural Research by 2030.”

The report estimates the world population will drastically increase by 2030, and with that increase comes the need to increase agricultural production. As a result, there might be harm to the environment in the forms of water, ground and air pollution.

Increasing agricultural production by 40% while cutting the environmental footprint, according to the USDA agenda, involves incorporating new technologies to improve fertilizer and manure management, capture biogas, improve livestock production efficiency, conserve sensitive and marginal lands to enhance carbon sinks, reforestation and responsible forest management to prevent wildfire, maximizing the benefits of renewable energy through improved efficiency and carbon capture, and encouraging soil health practices such as no-till to sequester carbon.

“There’s no single measure for agriculture’s contributions to the environment in totality,” the USDA stated. “Some of the ways we can measure it is through food loss and waste, carbon sequestration and greenhouse gases, water quality and renewable energy. This is why we’ve developed benchmarks to track toward these metrics, which aren’t meant to be comprehensive but to represent indicators of agriculture’s environmental performance. We need to elevate the importance of conservation and environmental outcomes, and that is what these goals intend to do. The work to improve USDA’s data and metrics on agricultural conservation will help define current environmental progress in agriculture and will allow for a clearer picture of what’s needed to meet the goals.”

To reach the goal of cutting the environmental footprint also involves supporting renewable fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and biomass, and increasing biofuel feedstock production and biofuel production efficiency and competitiveness to achieve market-driven blend rates of E15 in 2030 and E30 in 2050.

Also, the USDA’s goal of improving water quality involves the reduction of water nutrient loss by 30% nationally by 2050, which, in part, includes supporting existing watershed goals. In Michigan, some of the watershed concerns involve algal blooms, eroding road-stream crossings and river floodplains, livestock in streams and poor fishing.

Kaitlyn Leffert, an environmental quality analyst for Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said if individuals are using solvents and fertilizers in their soil, the water can become contaminated because of the water runoff, which can be discharged into stormwater. To keep that from happening and improve water quality, she said, the water should be treated.

Tammy Helminski, a partner at the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg, said the state already is working to improve water quality.

“Many of the actions noted to reduce environmental footprint are ones in which Michigan and the Great Lakes Region are already engaged, particularly those related to water quality,” she said. “Reducing nutrient loss and water quality impacts from nutrients has been and continues to be an important initiative where we see EGLE and MDARD partnering with local conservation districts and other stakeholders to develop and implement practical solutions.”

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