An interview with Abby Rinne from the U.S. Sustainability Alliance by Agricultura journalist and Editorial Agrícola publishing director Jesús López Colmenarejo.

On a recent trip to Louisiana, Agricultura had the opportunity to talk with Abby Rinne about the past, present and future of agricultural production in the United States. The result is an insight into America’s history of conservation and why the need for trusted innovation in agriculture is greater than ever.

How has sustainability in the U.S. agricultural sector evolved over the past few decades?

ABBY RINNE (AR): Sustainability has been a focus for the U.S. agricultural sector for nearly 100 years, long before it was called sustainability. The “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, when more than 40 million hectares of farmland were devastated by drought, soil erosion and poor farming practices, was a pivotal moment in understanding the impact agriculture can have on the environment.

This “Dust Bowl” led to the creation of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and a long history of American farmers and ranchers focusing on protecting their most valuable asset: their land.

In the last few decades progress has been very rapid. The agricultural sector’s commitment to sustainability has remained unchanged, but farmers have been increasingly implementing new technologies and techniques in their operations to increase production.

U.S. agricultural production is often associated with “quality”, “quantity” or “high level trade”, but in Europe, it is not generally considered to be “sustainable”.  What data and figures can you provide to show that Europeans are wrong?

AR: A little-known statistic (and one that surprised journalists on our Louisiana media tour), is that 98% of U.S. farms are family owned and operated, and are responsible for more than 80% of production.

Conservation and sustainability are nothing new to America’s farmers, fishermen and foresters. For them, sustainability is a way of life. They care about the land, forests and seas and are committed to leaving them in better shape for the next generation. This is a far cry from how many Europeans perceive U.S. farms and ranches.

In terms of the facts and figures, you only need to look at the USSA website to appreciate the commitment and accomplishments of our members, who represent American agricultural production. You’ll see ambitious goals and a history of continuous improvement and hard work to conserve natural resources while improving efficiency. These are just some of the highlights:

In terms of carbon, our focus is on year-on-year reductions and establishing international standards. It may surprise many Europeans that:

  • The U.S. dairy industry has the lowest carbon emissions per liter of milk in the world. In the decade from 2005, it reduced emissions intensity by 2.2% per year while increasing milk production by 2.1%
  • From 1961 to 2018, the U.S. beef industry reduced emissions by more than 40% per pound of beef. Indeed, the U.S. has had the lowest beef GHG emissions intensity in the world since 1996
  • Between 1980 and 2020, U.S. soybean production improved energy use efficiency by 46% per bushel

As the foundation of U.S. food production, quite literally, our farmers care deeply about the soil and keeping it healthy. Many of our members have made improvements or set ambitious targets to reduce soil loss. For example:

  • The U.S. corn industry has adopted advanced farming practices, including no-till and reduced-till cultivation, leading to a 40% reduction in soil loss between 1980 and 2020
  • The U.S. cotton industry’s adoption of agricultural practices, including crop rotation and wind barriers, led to a 78% reduction in soil loss in 2021 compared to 2015

And let’s not forget water, which poses one of the biggest challenges for agriculture in terms of water supply, retention and runoff management.

  • The United States grows about 45 million acres of wheat (about 18 million hectares) that feeds millions of people around the world. Yet, only 7% of U.S. wheat is irrigated, making it an incredibly water-efficient crop
  • The U.S. almond industry (in California) is committed to using water as efficiently as possible. Between the 1990s and 2010, it reduced the amount of water needed to grow each pound of almonds by 33%, and is already targeting a further 20% reduction by 2025
  • Water is the most important resource for the U.S. rice industry, which, between 1980 and 2015, reduced its water consumption by 52%. And, as we learned on our media tour, it is targeting a further 13% reduction in water use by 2030

What, in your opinion, will be some of the future requirements and trends in environmental sustainability in the U.S. agricultural sector?

AR: Meeting a growing world population, which is expected to reach close to 10 billion by 2050, and doing so sustainably is one of the most pressing issues for the agricultural sector worldwide. The challenge is to grow more food on less land while using fewer inputs, respecting water quality and quantity, improving soil health and working to mitigate the effects of climate change.

This will require a continued focus on research and technological innovation. Thanks to innovation, U.S. agricultural production has already increased by 400% in the last 90 years without any aggregate increase in the inputs required and with 10% less land.

We expect to see the use of technology, such as precision farming, continue to grow and evolve. This precise application will require fewer inputs to produce an abundant harvest. The future will be about doing even more with less while minimizing environmental impacts, and in the United States, we believe that research and innovation are the key.

How will technology help farmers continually improve the way they care for their soil and water?

AR: Precision agriculture is already helping farmers improve the way they care for their land by guiding their use of water and other inputs. For example, technology such as sensors and GPS allows farmers to map and monitor their fields. The Hardwick family we met in Northeast Louisiana talked about how the latest variable rate technologies mean they use fewer resources like nutrients and fertilizer because they can identify where in the field they are needed. They take soil samples from about a third of their land each year and use the data to guide where they apply fertilizer. This means that every area of the field is getting precisely what it needs, which improves soil health and increases resource efficiency.

Earlier, I mentioned the progress the California almond industry has made in reducing its water use. A major contributor has been the adoption of irrigation innovations such as precision irrigation, which helps growers deliver the right amount of water at the right time to the right tree. And there are similar examples in the various sectors and commodity groups that USSA represents.

If you could sum up the future of agricultural production in the United States in one word, what would it be and why?

AR: I would say “progress” pretty much sums it up. U.S. farmers and producers are nothing if not innovative, committed to passing on the land to the next generation in better shape than they found it. And they are open to using the best tools available to improve the quality of their crops and yields while taking care of their most important asset. And I believe this forward-thinking mentality will stand the U.S. agricultural sector in good stead in the future. It means that U.S. agricultural production can continue to evolve and respond to changing market dynamics. In other words, it can remain environmentally and economically sustainable.