Vilsack says innovation key to fighting climate change, food insecurity

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday touted new investments and partnerships to address climate change and food security through agricultural innovation. Speaking at the opening of the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) Summit, he said the initiative has secured more than $13 billion in public and private investments for climate-smart agriculture, reflecting what he called a “global appetite to accelerate innovation.”

Food systems are responsible for about one-third of humanity’s carbon emissions, and also face serious risks from climate changes’ effects, such as extreme weather and drought.

“Climate change continues to impact longstanding agricultural practices in every country,” Vilsack said, “and a strong global commitment is necessary to face the challenges of climate change head-on and build more sustainable, equitable and resilient food systems.”

As climate change accelerates and global food demand rises, more efficient fertilizers, improved genetics and other technological innovations will help farmers “produce more with less,” the secretary said. 

To that end, Vilsack announced an additional $1.8 billion for 21 new “climate innovation sprints” — collaborations that aim to solve a specific farm or food system challenge such as developing carbon-neutral irrigation pumps for smallholder farmers, developing climate-smart bean varieties, reducing water and fertilizer use and planting trees. In all, AIM for Climate has spent more than $3 billion on 51 such projects.

Vilsack also announced the launch of the USDA’s science and research strategy, which sets science priorities for the next three years. The priorities include accelerating innovative technologies, climate smart solutions, nutritions security and resilient ecosystems.  

The summit, which runs through Wednesday, is intended to help set the stage for COP 28, to be held in November in the United Arab Emirates. Mariam Almheiri, the UAE’s minister of climate change and environment, promised that COP 28 will be a “game changer” for food systems. 

After his remarks, Vilsack interviewed former Vice President Al Gore, who owns a 400-acre farm in Tennessee and chairs a sustainability-focused investment firm. Gore’s farm uses a number of regenerative practices, including crop rotation, rotational grazing, seaweed supplements to reduce livestock’s methane emissions and no-till cultivation.

Gore sees huge promise in sequestering carbon in the soil. Researchers at his farm are working on ways to measure how much carbon farmers are able to sequester. The goal is to pay farmers for sequestering carbon, which will incentivize them to switch to more climate-friendly practices, he said.

Despite this optimism, as FERN has previously reported, a growing number of scientists say sequestering carbon in the soil may not live up to the hype, and caution that more research is needed to determine how much carbon is sequestered and under what conditions. 

Gore also spoke of the need to halt the destruction of wild lands to expand agriculture. “Let’s use innovation and other techniques to get our yields up and not tear down the Amazon,” he said. 

Gore added that he hoped Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would follow through with his commitments to stop deforestation.

But while agricultural innovations can play a role in addressing climate change, Gore said the only real solution is to stop emissions from oil and gas. “The climate crisis is really a fossil fuel crisis,” he said. “Job number one is to reduce the production and use of fossil fuels.”

Humans have already caused irreversible damage to the planet, Gore said, such as setting into motion the melting of arctic ice. Still, he said that humanity can deal with the damage we’ve caused so far — if we can phase out fossil fuels.

“We’ve got to stop pretending that there’s going to be some magical technological solution,” he said. “We’ve got to obey the first law of holes. When you’re in one, stop digging.”