Opinion: Sustainable Agriculture in the U.S. vs. the EU

A Comparative Look at Different Approaches to Similar Objectives

By Scott H. Hutchins, Ph.D., Former USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics. Originally published in CSA News.

Scott H. Hutchins

There is common ground between the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (EU) on many aspects of sustainable agriculture. Indeed, the world is largely aligned on the agricultural goal to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food to support a growing global population without loss of the earth’s production capability over time. There is global consensus that achieving “sustainability” requires economic, social, and environmental components as essential and interdependent success factors. However, the world differs widely on the best ways to achieve these goals. Two of the largest agricultural regions, the U.S. and the EU, for example, have mostly antithetical philosophies and approaches to achieve the outcomes. This polarization on how to achieve sustainable agriculture, which is the basis for this article, diminishes the role of science as the arbiter for advancing sustainable agriculture, risks the harmonization for global trade among all nations, and threatens agrarian nations already facing severe food insecurity.

The differences are seemingly complex, but essentially have one key difference: the United States has focused on outcomes and asserts that science, translated through technology and product innovation, is the solution to the complex objectives of both production and production capability, whereas many in the EU have focused on inputs and believe that “less is more” regarding technology and that natural systems are sufficient to achieve production, preserve nature, and sustain the environment. These differences are clearly recognized in recent actions from both governments. The USDA has initiated the Agriculture Innovation Agenda with an overarching goal to increase production by 40% through productivity improvements while simultaneously reducing the U.S. agricultural footprint by 50%. Technology and agronomic innovation, both incremental and transformative, is at the core of this policy by the U.S., and it seeks to strengthen the relationships and resolve of both the public‐ and private‐sector innovators to meet the challenge. This paradigm shift focuses on “improving” vs. “removing” the tools, techniques, and technologies to address the environmental footprint goal as well as the production goal.

By contrast, the European Commission (EC) recently published its Farm to Fork Strategy with stated goals to reduce the use of most existing technologies (e.g., fertilizers, pest management tools, and antimicrobials) by as much as 50% and promotes natural methods such as organic farming, with limited reference to the importance of working with the private sector and no mention of a specific production goal to match the conservation objectives. Without addressing production, the effort falls short. Demand for agricultural goods and services will not diminish, and the result will induce other countries to expand production to meet demand. In the end, the effort will simply shift production away from the EU rather than improving environmental performance.

The USDA Agriculture Innovation Agenda

In February 2020, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the Agriculture Innovation Agenda as part of an overarching theme for the annual USDA Ag Outlook Forum focused on the role of innovation in the past, present, and future of agriculture. The purpose of the Agriculture Innovation Agenda (AIA) is to increase production while reducing the agriculture sector’s overall environmental footprint. Though the challenge goal is extensive, the AIA vision is monumental and transformative, requiring bold innovations to address emerging challenges and create new opportunities in agriculture for both producers and consumers.

Bold innovation is not a new concept for U.S. agriculture. In less than one century, agricultural productivity has increased more than 400% (see Figure 1). It’s remarkable that the increased output over this period has been accomplished with virtually no additional inputs. The form, function, and approach to the inputs have changed dramatically through new innovations, but the aggregate level of input has not changed. Although progress has been sustained for decades, the productivity slope must steepen with sustained investments in science and rapid adoption of new technologies focused on the AIA goals and the leading indicators aligned to those goals.

Figure 1
Total factor productivity (TFP) of U.S. agriculture over time. Shown are major technological innovations and their approximate date of development and adoption. The red line represents total aggregate inputs; the green line represents total aggregate outputs; the blue line represents total factor productivity, which is the ratio of outputs over inputs. Source: USDA‐OCE using data from USDA‐ERS and historic USDA data (pre‐1948).

Accordingly, the AIA is constructed with three workstreams:

There is extraordinary potential to accelerate progress toward the AIA goals in the next era of agricultural innovation. The AIA incorporated findings from a recent U.S. National Academies of Science study (see www.nap.edu/read/25059/chapter/1) on innovations that will significantly improve agriculture and food production to construct four innovation clusters of high priority:

These innovation clusters do not represent all the innovation required to reach the AIA goals—advancements in biological, chemical, and mechanical tools will all be essential components of the toolbox. But the clusters do represent the most transformative opportunities to truly impact sustainable agriculture in the future. And, while harnessing technology is most frequently associated with increasing production, the real gains come from improving productivity, seen as sustainable intensification. By unlocking productivity gains, the potential to enable production capability for true sustainability is unlimited.

Another feature of the AIA is the direct and sincere engagement of the U.S. agricultural community and public at large. Organizations involved in agriculture (producer and consumer) were engaged and solicited for input via a U.S. Federal Register “Request for Information” to identify the most significant opportunities and challenges for agriculture. Hundreds of inputs were submitted, and many groups proactively engaged with technical experts at USDA and U.S. universities to better understand the options and potential. This engagement, known by project leaders as the “voice of the customer,” provided invaluable insights to begin construction of a U.S. ag innovation strategy, leading to the most impactful discovery targets and solution concepts that will support the AIA goal. The public sector, including the USDA research agencies and the land grant university system, will be able to focus their research, knowing the solutions are aligned with the agricultural community as well as the larger society.

Moreover, USDA recently published the USDA Science Blueprint, which complements the AIA directly, outlining the key themes for building scientific capabilities within the Department from 2020‐2025. Similarly, the product goals for the private sector will be informed and formulated by their business development teams with confidence that they are solving the challenges that matter to their customers and in full alignment with the goals of sustainable agriculture. The AIA actively solicits engagement from the private sector along with public–private partnerships, ranging from small start‐ups to large multi‐national organizations.

In summary, the AIA outlines a challenging goal for sustainable agriculture in the U.S., embraces the need for relevant innovation as the engine leading the desired outcome, and defines the framework for adoption while establishing a scorecard to define progress. The agricultural community endorses the goals, and public‐ and private‐sector research groups are engaged and focused within a broad agricultural innovation ecosystem.

This opinion piece is continued on the TriSocieties online library.

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