USDA Announces Sustainable Ag Goals, Nebraska Experts Say 'We'll See'

(Brian Seifferlein, NET News)
February 20, 2020 - 5:00pm

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday a goal to increase agriculture production by 40% while cutting carbon emissions in half by 2050. But Nebraska experts say it’s not yet clear if the USDA can reach those marks.


The USDA’s Innovation Initiative is an effort to make America’s agriculture industry "environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable."

"It’s going to take all of us to do that," said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. "It’s going to take alignment to do that, between the public sector and the private sector. But that’s how we define doing right and feeding everyone as we go forward."

Some USDA benchmarks: 

  • Food loss and waste: Advance our work toward the United States’ goal to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.
  • Carbon Sequestration and Greenhouse Gas: Enhance carbon sequestration through soil health and forestry, leverage the ag sector’s renewable energy benefits for the economy, and capitalize on innovative technologies and practices to achieve net reduction of the sector’s current carbon footprint by 2050 without regulatory overreach.
  • Water Quality: Reduce nutrient loss by 30 percent nationally by 2050.
  • Renewable Energy: Increase the production of renewable energy feedstocks and set a goal to increase biofuel production efficiency and competitiveness to achieve market-driven blend rates of 15% of transportation fuels in 2030 and 30% of transportation fuels by 2050.

Charles Francis is a Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He says most of what Nebraska farmers produce gets exported out of state.

"The current system is producing a lot of stuff, a lot of it’s raw material that we ship out of the state," Francis said. "But it shows there’s a huge potential to increase local foods, to increase food crops as compared to industrial crops that are turned into ethanol and plastics."

The USDA plan relies on researching strategies to increase crop yields without farming more acres.

Dave Welsch’s farm in Milford, Nebraska has been certified organic since 1993. He says in order to reach their goals, the USDA needs to invest that research carefully.

"If we continue to put research dollars into typical, conventional ag where it’s, okay we’ve identified this pests now we need to develop a chemical to overcome it," Welsch said. "Or will they put their research dollars into more sustainable and organic practices?"

Francis says it's also important to widen the scope of agricultural research. 

"We have so much of our attention on three major crops," Francis said. "We get most of our human nutrition from something like 18 or 20 crops worldwide, and people have consumed several thousand crops over the long history. And most of those have not been studied very well and researched, so we have much more potential to increase yield on things other than our major crops at this point in time." 

Perdue acknowledges the goals will be difficult to reach.

"It's a stretch goal, it should be," Perdue said. "But we think we can get there."

So far the plan’s action steps include collecting data and analyzing current polices and practices.  


Learn more about sustainable agriculture on this week's episode of Speaking of Nebraska. Tune into NET to watch the in-depth discussion: 

  • Thursday, Feb. 20 at 8:30pm
  • Friday, Feb. 21 at 7:30pm on NET
  • Sunday, Feb. 22 at 10am on NET World
  • Sunday, Feb. 22 at 11am

Or listen to the show on NET Radio on Friday, Feb. 21 at 6:30pm. 

All times Central Time.

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