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North America can lead the world on climate mitigation, says Vilsack

The agriculture ministers of Canada, Mexico, and the United States described national initiatives to boost productivity and slow global warming at the World Food Prize symposium on Thursday, with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack saying, “There’s a tremendous opportunity for North America to lead the world.” While he called for being tolerant of different approaches to climate mitigation, Vilsack was clear that in his view, the U.S. high-technology approach is the best.

“I believe you don’t have to sacrifice productivity for sustainability, or that you have to sacrifice sustainability for productivity,” said Vilsack. “You can do both.”

Some 50 nations have joined a U.S.-founded “coalition for productivity growth,” which embraces genetic engineering and precision agriculture as tools for building a more sustainable food system. Announced last month at a meeting of G20 agriculture ministers, the coalition’s approach stands in contrast to the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, which stresses greatly reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides and putting 25% of European farmland into organic production.

“Frankly, you know, there are other ways, other philosophies that are at play here,” said Vilsack at the symposium in Des Moines, Iowa. “Our friends in Europe have their Farm to Fork initiative, and that is a slightly different approach. Ours is primarily incentive-based; theirs is more focused on regulation. The key here is to understand we share the same vision … but there may be multiple ways to get to that end point … which is a net zero agriculture in the future.”

Canada and Mexico have been invited to join the productivity coalition, said Vilsack. Neither Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau of Canada nor Minister Victor Manuel Villalobos Armabula of Mexico responded directly to the invitation during their remarks. Villalobos was on stage with Vilsack. Bibeau took part digitally.

Canada, like the United States, has a goal of net zero emissions of greenhouse gases across its economy by 2050, said Bibeau. The country has adopted a food policy that includes reducing food waste while assuring that Canadians have healthful diets. Its On-Farm Climate Action Fund, which will spend up to $200 million to help farmers adopt practices that store carbon and reduce emissions, focuses on cover crops, nitrogen management, and rotational grazing. The goal is to reduce emissions by 1 million tonnes a year.

President Biden says U.S. agriculture could be first in the world to achieve net zero emissions — and make money while doing it. Vilsack says the USDA will put a “significant” amount of money into large-scale pilot projects of climate-smart practices to create new markets for sustainably produced goods. The initiative would kick off next year. “This initiative is first and foremost a commodity program,” said Vilsack during his Sept. 29 announcement of the plan. Most of the USDA’s land stewardship programs have climate mitigation components.

Vilsack will attend the UN climate summit in Scotland in two weeks “to showcase the U.S. leadership on climate action and to underscore the importance of putting agriculture, forestry, and rural communities at the center of global solutions to the climate crisis,” said the USDA.

Mexico boosted corn productivity in Guerrero, a state on the Pacific Coast, through a pilot program that analyzed soils and provided the appropriate amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed to enrich those soils, said Villalobos. “This is a state that always needed to import corn from other states,” but its half-million farmers, half of them women, “were able to raise productivity almost double,” thanks to a technique as simple as soil tests.

“They now not only fill the requirements for the family, but also they are attending the markets, local markets, with this beautiful corn, the landraces that they grow for many, many, many generations,” said Villalobos.

Corn was first domesticated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago. There have been clashes for years over the domestic production of corn — white corn is used to make tortillas and other staples of Mexican cuisine — and the importing of U.S.-grown corn, usually yellow corn that is genetically engineered and used in livestock rations. On Wednesday, Villalobos said that while the country would not allow domestic cultivation of GE corn, imports of U.S.-grown GMO corn would be allowed “for agro industries,” reported Reuters. Mexico is the No. 2 market for U.S. corn exports.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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