As the incoming administration contemplates the path forward for America’s energy, agriculture, conservation and climate polices, it will be important to carefully assess the role that farms, ranches and forests – our nation’s working lands – can play in meeting desired outcomes.
For too long we have been managing these lands and the services they provide in “silos,” often looking narrowly at either food, habitat, water quality or endangered species objectives and outcomes. A new way forward is needed – one by which land is managed in a more integrated way.
21st century problems require 21st century solutions, and it’s time to accept the fact that many of the policies and programs of the past cannot meet the needs of tomorrow. The new way forward begins with recognizing that to achieve the outcomes society wants and needs, there must be an economic return.
In recent years, the U.S. agriculture and forestry economies have struggled mightily. Today’s commodity prices are well below the cost of production. Furthermore, nonaligned, disjointed and often conflicting regulatory programs are crippling efforts to feed and fuel a growing population, while also trying to reverse historical losses in ecosystem integrity and seeking to meet the challenges of a changing climate.
As politically difficult as this latter point is, the climate is changing and impacts are being felt by those who make their living off the land. Regardless of the cause, it is producing volatile weather conditions – drought, flooding, wildfires and tornadoes – that are impacting agricultural and forestry production, elevating risk and causing huge economic losses.
The question is not: Should we do something? The question is: What do we need to do?
This week, the Obama administration released the Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, which sets out a long-term vision for achieving emission reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050 while meeting growing demands on our energy system and our lands.
It is understandable that a new administration will bring with it significant change. But we urge those about to take power not to wholly reject sensible programs and policies developed by their predecessors, such as the sound concept of using agricultural and forestry landscapes to sink carbon, as is discussed in the mid-century strategy. Terrestrial soil carbon sequestration improves soil health and, in turn, productivity and profitability for farmers and forestland owners.
As the mid-century strategy notes, U.S. lands have been sequestering much more carbon than they emit (a net “carbon sink”) for the last three decades. In 2014, the U.S. land carbon sink sequestered a net 762 million metric tons of CO2, offsetting 11 percent of economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions. The strategy also recognizes the critical role to be played by bioenergy, as energy demand is expected to grow in the decades to come. The sustainable management of our forests and other biomass resources can help supplement non-renewable fossil fuels in the transportation, building and industry sectors, while also supporting domestic industries and improving our national energy security.
How we manage our land resources, both in the near-term and over the next several decades, will determine whether U.S. lands can remain a robust carbon sink, while delivering food, feed, fiber, forest products and bioenergy.
There is a need for wider implementation of sequestration-supporting conservation practices that are already in use, and which are advocated for in the mid-century strategy. Those practices are paying off for thousands of farmers, and for our country as a whole, in the form of increased crop yields, better resilience to weather extremes, less soil erosion, improved nutrient management and enhanced cropping system diversity. But much more is needed to feed a growing global population and counter vulnerability in an unpredictable future.
We respectfully urge the Trump administration to exercise patience – go slow and take a fresh look at ways agricultural landscapes can be managed and repurposed to deliver production, environmental and economic returns to our country, and especially to farmers, ranchers and foresters, the guardians and stewards of America’s working lands.