This guest editorial was shared by Jay Vroom, chairman, Trust In Food and America’s Conservation Ag Movement Board of Advisers.

I’ve been connected to U.S. production agriculture my entire life. From growing up on a grain and livestock farm in Illinois (which I still own) to working in my career in ag trade associations, I’ve seen a lot and learned so much from a wide array of leaders.

I’ve seen sustainability come and go in its various fashions in recent decades. President Bill Clinton had his White House Sustainability Task Force nearly three decades ago. Before him, President George H.W. Bush had sustainability policy aspirations. Most of that came and went, and we kept on being more and more productive at the U.S. farmgate while coping with greater regulatory pressures, mostly incrementally.  All along U.S. farmers have been on a continuous-improvement journey–aided by technology advances of every imaginable form (our farmers are world leaders in tech adoption).

Today’s farm and food sustainability is different—and it is real and lasting this time. It might be hard to see because almost every agribusiness and food company–along with a massive cross-section of our government—all have sustainability mantras. And almost none of that talk aligns with the others or seems to have any clear basis for measurement or outcomes. 

When I mention “sustainability” here my intent is to be all-inclusive of activities that also are branded “regenerative farming” and other evolving labels–it is all about increasing productivity and farm profit while reducing environmental footprint.

Don’t let the noise fool you. The trend is not going away, and in fact the noise is converging to bankable endpoints. It might be easy to find examples of commitment “mistakes” farmers might have already made—such as carbon contracts that are too long or not balanced for farmers’ economic interests. 

SDGs As A Framework U.S. Farms Can Use To Meet Global Demand. Recently, I analyzed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, better known as the SDGs, putting them side by side with the objectives and accomplishments of America’s Conservation Ag Movement (ACAM), the largest U.S. public-private partnership focused exclusively on helping producers accelerate their voluntary conservation ag adoption at the local, regional and national levels.

I found direct linkage for nine of the 17 SDGs in our work to help support greater U.S. farmer adoption of soil and water conservation practices. Among the SDGs, those titled “Clean Water,” “Affordable + Clean Energy” and “Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure” have direct ties to U.S. conservation-oriented farming. Even some of the other eight SDGs, such as “No Poverty” and “Good Health and Well-Being” have strong indirect ties to U.S. conservation activities.

It’s easy for many U.S. farmers and other agriculture professionals to pooh-pooh the UN SDGs as more internationalist pablum. Yet a more helpful approach to strengthen and grow our country’s access to global markets might be to embrace the SDGs as a framework for understanding what U.S. farmers can be doing to integrate sustainability into their operations to meet the needs of global buyers of food, fuel and fiber. 

This is the first of a series of articles in which myself and other U.S. farmers and ag professionals will illustrate how their segment of the agri-food value chain is looking ahead to the future and the ways in which they can contribute to the SDGs–thus meeting domestic and export needs for these farm products.

It’s a perfect time to be having these conversations. This year, the UN Food Systems Summit will take place. It’s an event that puts an even brighter spotlight on the important contributions U.S. agriculture can make–with continued, persistent focus on voluntary adoption of conservation agriculture practices–to achieving the ambition of the SDGs. 

The preliminary sessions for the Summit began in 2020 and will crescendo at a summary event this September in New York, with a pre-summit event in July–it all is coming at us fast. The five “Action Tracks” included in the Summit process can all be linked in some form or fashion to U.S. agriculture as a solutions provider:  

  1. Safe and Nutritious Food for All
  2. Shift to Sustainable Consumption
  3. Boost Nature-Positive Production
  4. Advance Equitable Livelihoods
  5. Build Resilience to Vulnerabilities, Shocks and Stress.   

Will there be lots of talk-fest meetings and global-speak and some healthy dose of green-wash?  Of course. You don’t need to go to a global event for that. We have plenty right here at home.  

But what all this will do, in my view, is show how food and ag are in the center of most everything important to humans and the environment on the planet. And it will give many of us in U.S. agriculture the chance to showcase how farming and its related agribusiness and food sectors are already part of the global environmental solution—and will continue to be at the forefront of innovation delivering sustainable food systems leadership.

In the next article in this series, I’ll examine the opportunities for U.S. farmers to build domestic and international demand for sustainability produced products through the use of an important sustainability driver–precision ag and digital technology.

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