Carlos Suárez, Manager Sustainability, Policy, and Innovation at the U.S. Grains Council and a USSA Management Council member, recently spoke to the Spanish non-profit La Fundación Antama (Foundation for the Application of New Technologies in Agriculture, the Environment and Food) about sustainable agriculture in the United States. Read his interview to learn more about the U.S. Sustainability Alliance and its objectives, as well as the role of technology and innovation, including New Gene Editing Techniques (NGTs), in sustainable food production.

1. Introduce us to the U.S. Sustainability Alliance (when it was founded, its members, and general objectives)

The U.S. Sustainability Alliance (USSA) was established in 2013 to represent American farmers, fishers, foresters, and supply chain partners. It is a non-profit that promotes American agriculture’s strong commitment to conservation and sustainability. 

Today, the USSA has 27 members ranging from commodity crops such as soybeans, maize, and wheat to sectors covering organic trade, almonds, prunes, sweet potatoes, citrus fruit, and native American products, alongside Alaskan salmon, beef, pork, dairy and egg products. Collectively, USSA members export more than $8 billion in food and agricultural products to the EU-27 and the United Kingdom.

Our goal is to share with our counterparts in Europe the reality of U.S. agriculture, providing insights into our members’ sustainable production practices. In doing so, we aim to dispel some of the misperceptions about American food production. For example, U.S. farming is often portrayed as large-scale and industrial with little concern for the environment. The reality is that 97% of America’s farms are family-owned and operated. These farming families live and work on the land passed down through generations and are intent on maintaining, improving, and preserving these natural resources for future generations. 

2. What are the main pillars of agricultural sustainability?

Sustainability has different meanings and definitions, but true sustainability requires balancing three pillars – environmental, social, and economic. While the focus often appears to be on environmental and societal considerations, particularly in Europe, food production must be profitable if it’s going to be sustainable. Within these three pillars are subsets, such as improving soil quality and optimizing water supply, which is all the more critical and challenging due to the changing climate. 

Farmers, ranchers, and foresters in the United States have implemented sustainable agriculture actively since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s when unsustainable farming practices combined with a long drought caused major devastation in our Great Plains. That was a wake-up call on the need to conserve and sustain the land.

We see sustainability as a journey and seek ongoing improvements from our farms, forests, and fisheries across the supply chain. This is a ‘bottom-up’ approach driven mainly by the marketplace rather than ‘top down’ prescriptive legislation. 

3. What role do technology and innovation play in advancing increasingly sustainable agriculture?

Farmers everywhere need access to safe, efficient tools if they are to produce enough food to feed an ever-growing population. American farmers have long been ready to innovate and use technology to provide more food using fewer resources. For example, according to an April 2022 report in The Packer publication, today’s American farmer produces enough food to feed 155 people, compared to only 26 in 1960. This efficiency has been largely driven by the adoption of new and safe technologies according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Agriculture study

On crop farms in the United States, thanks to the increasing use of precision agriculture – sensors, GPS, drones, auto-steer systems, and more – farmers can manage the inputs for their crops more accurately (and therefore more sustainably). Using data, they can vary and adapt their seeding and application rates to apply just the right amounts of seed, fertilizer, and crop protection products to each area of their fields. Increasingly, artificial intelligence is being used to improve and enhance soil health by predicting nutrient levels, determining moisture levels, and assessing erosion risks. 

The challenge with any technology is that the current social environment typically determines whether it will be accepted. Science provides us with tools to evaluate and manage risk, and as such, it is key to compare the risks and costs of adopting a new technology with the risks and costs of not adopting it. 

4. On February 7, 2024, the Plenary Session of the European Parliament approved the Commission’s proposal regarding the New Gene Editing Techniques regulation. Should NGTs be part of the toolbox for increasingly sustainable agriculture?

This vote was both surprising and welcome, showing parliamentarians recognize the benefits NGTs can bring to farmers and the environment. However, amendments to the proposal called for NGTs to be labeled and that patents should be banned. Scientists and commentators argue that these amendments are political rather than based on science and could hamper the adoption of NGT crops in the EU.

Numerous studies highlight the potential for NGT crops to contribute to sustainable agri-food systems, including a 2021 European Commission study that stated: “NGT products can potentially contribute to sustainable agri-food systems in line with the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy”.

Since the early days of agriculture, farmers have looked for better ways to farm. NGT crops are simply the latest technology available to help them. Aside from production benefits such as drought, saline, insect, and disease resistance, NGT crops will bring nutritional and health benefits such as gluten-free wheat, and improved shelf life for fruits and vegetables. Farmers everywhere need all the safe, beneficial tools available if they are to feed a growing population. NGTs are yet another such tool.

This interview is published with La Fundación Antama’s permission.