Senate Agriculture Committee discusses ongoing role of farmers to mitigate climate change
On May 21, the Senate Agriculture Committee welcomed animal scientists and producers for a panel discussion on the role of agriculture producers in addressing climate change.
As the meeting opened, the bipartisan committee leadership acknowledged the crucial role of producers and the complicated challenge of meeting the world’s food needs while taking steps to mitigate climate change. The adoption and development of new agricultural tools and research programs was a major focus of the discussion.
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) emphasized that potential plans must be economically sustainable for producers.
“America’s farmers and ranchers are continually learning and evolving in order to improve agricultural production efficiencies and to conserve natural resources,” Roberts said. “If farmers are hindered from utilizing existing technologies and research, or if unsound regulatory decisions are made today on emerging technologies such as genome editing, we can expect an economic result that is at the least more costly and at worst unsustainable for our farmers and ranchers,” he said.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), also credited agricultural science as a tool to address food security and climate change. “Sound science has helped our farmers grow the safest, most productive food supply in the world,” she said, adding that one way for producers to address climate change is to adopt practices to store more carbon in soil and trees. “Many farmers and ranchers are already rising to meet this challenge while continuing to meet the growing global demand for food,” Stabenow said.
Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a cattle rancher from Kansas and a member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association spoke next. She added context to the discussion, explaining that most Americans are not involved in farming because of programs and tools that have already dramatically improved the efficiency of food production. “Those efficiencies mean real reductions in climate emissions,” she said.
As one example, Lyons-Blythe explained that her ranch uses genetic selection to breed animals that have better feed and water efficiency. Her ranch also maintains and improves grasslands, which aids in carbon sequestration. “We do it because it is the right thing to do, and it improves our operation,” she said.
The next speaker was Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal science and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis. He explained to the committee that animal agriculture contributes only 3.9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. He said this low number is a testament to the work already done in the agriculture sector to improve animal efficiency. In fact, animal herds in the United States are currently at a historic low, with no corresponding change in food output.
“This massive increase in efficiency and decrease in emissions has been made possible by the technological, genetic and management changes in U.S. agriculture since World War II,” said Mitloehner.
Producer Matt Rezac, a fourth-generation farmer and manager of Rezac Farms in Nebraska, spoke next. He described the practices his corn and soybean operation use to reduce waste, including precision agriculture techniques to get the correct nutrients to plants and improve soil health.
He emphasized that his farm’s success has been possible thanks to his local Natural Resources Conservation Service office and his local co-op. He said programs like these need more support as farmers look to improve sustainability while keeping their businesses afloat. “No one farmer, entity or sector has all the answers and capabilities to accomplish alone what is needed. It takes all of us working together – farmers, the government, and the private sector – to deliver climate solutions,” Rezac said.
Tom Vilsack, former secretary of agriculture and current chief executive officer and president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, spoke next on the increasing demand for sustainable dairy products. He said the dairy industry is on track to meet their goal of reducing emissions by 25 percent by 2020, and they are working to get to zero emissions. One strategy in the industry is to support “pilot” farms to test new technology and techniques to reduce emissions, such as improved manure management.
Vilsack also thanked the committee for their bipartisan support for the issue. “I suspect there are many out in the countryside that appreciate this committee’s approach to problem solving,” he said.
Watch full committee hearing: Climate Change and the Agriculture Sector