Work to construct and forge consensus on the 2023 Farm Bill is well underway, with field hearings being scheduled to solicit stakeholder input on priority components and outcomes. How it will come together and what it will contain is still unknown, and there are many fault lines that could disrupt what historically has been a bipartisan approach to fashioning, passing and securing Presidential approval of a such complex and multifaceted policy measure.
What we do know is that the challenges the Farm Bill seeks to address are increasing exponentially, and the policies and programs of the past will not meet the needs of today or tomorrow.
Going forward, agriculture must address and deliver solutions to hunger, poverty, health and nutrition, climate change, environmental challenges and a host of other local, national and global realities. None of these can be achieved unless agriculture is profitable. Profitability is the lynchpin for the outcomes our nation and world needs and expects.
So how can the Farm Bill help U.S. agriculture become more resilient and relevant in the 21st century. It must begin with a vision that can serve as a north star to guide our way forward.
In our 21st Century Agriculture Renaissance: Solutions from the Land report, SfL’s farmer, rancher and forester leaders advance a new and exciting vision for global agriculture, one that redefines humankind’s oldest endeavor. Going forward, we imagine stewards of the land, on whatever continent they reside, being recognized, valued and compensated – not just for the food, feed and fiber they sustainably produce, but for the equally important water they filter and store, biodiversity and wildlife habitat they enhance, carbon they sequester in the soil, clean energy they generate, and perhaps most importantly, for the livelihoods they improve.
There is no silver bullet solution to achieving this vison. Success will require multiple pathways, cross boundary collaboration, landscape scale strategies, and rewarding producers for the full range of goods and ecosystem services they deliver through sustainable and regenerative farming systems.
One promising pathway that the Farm Bill architects should embrace is circular systems. As noted in the recent Iowa Smart Agriculture: Solutions from the Land report, circular systems offer opportunities at all levels for local, regional, national and global agriculture and food systems to intersect and expand beyond on-farm production systems and stimulate the redesign of entire value chains-producers, processors, and distributors to wholesale and retail markets to consumer demand and consumption and the reuse and recycling of materials into new systems and products. (Verma & Jones 2021).
Circularity in agriculture and food systems holds promise for recovering lost resources, reinvesting in waste by-products, reinventing new co-products and restoring degraded resources by addressing the unintended consequences of linear production. The challenge to agriculture is to adapt the circularity observed in complex natural ecosystems into practical applications for producers and their value chains, thereby shifting intensive linear systems away from the single goal of optimizing monoculture productivity toward circles of life capable of producing multiple benefits concurrently. Mixed multi-plant and animal agricultural systems that leverage integrated land management and biodiversity have potential to deliver multiple benefits, including increased productivity, pest and disease control, water quality, soil health, and economic profitability. Replacing linear “take, make, and dispose” systems with circular “make, use, recycle, and reuse” systems that innovate and create new co-products offer solutions for managing input costs and gaining income and ecosystem benefits from wastes that are otherwise lost and can harm agro-ecosystems.
Technologies, innovations, and practices that reinforce and expand whole-system management, build on local conditions and knowledge, and that deliver multiple benefits beyond optimum production are needed for American agriculture, forestry and fisheries to concurrently produce food and nutrition security; healthy soil, water and other ecosystem services; and robust rural livelihoods necessary for future resilience and well-being.
In the coming weeks and months through the Farm Bill hearings that will be held across the country, SfL urges House and Senate Agriculture Committee members to seek input on the following questions:
- What enabling polices, programs, partnerships, markets, finance mechanisms are needed to improve the sustainability of food systems and simultaneously scale up the delivery, at a landscape scale, of ecosystems services from agricultural operations?
- What are the barriers to the adoption of circular economic systems in the ag sector?
- What examples of innovation can be cited to demonstrate the value and importance of ag ecosystem services?
- How can producers be rewarded not just for producing commodities, but for the water they filter and store, the carbon they sequester, the biodiversity and wildlife habitat they enhance, the economic growth and local wealth they generate and the improved of life they produce?
- How can research processes be prioritized and streamlined to integrate agriculture and forestry with conservation goals and ecosystem services?
- How can we expand and accelerate farmer-to farmer experimentation and knowledge sharing on ecosystem services delivery?
- What overlapping or contradictory policies and regulations need to be reduced or eliminated?
Thanks to hard work, indigenous knowledge, innovation and technology and uncommon collaboration among those who make their living off the land and water, agriculture is poised to bloom, grow, and emerge as a primary solution pathway towards the achievement of global sustainable development goals. For our vison to be realized, however, all actors in the global food systems need to unite and collaborate in ways we can only yet imagine.