Proof of agriculture's shrinking environmental footprint + the case for USMCA: The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 22
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Welcome to Episode 22 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. In this episode, American Farm Bureau chief economist Dr. John Newton shares proof that agriculture's environmental footprint is shrinking, and representatives from Iowa Farm Bureau, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, and the Greater Des Moines Partnership discuss the importance of the USMCA trade agreement on WHO Radio's The Big Show.
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Narrator: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast from Iowa's leading agricultural news source. Brought to you by the Iowa Farm Bureau. Now, here's your host, Laurie Johns.
Laurie Johns: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. This is our September 23rd edition. Are you joining us from the seat of a combine? We hope so, and if not, we know that you'll be out there soon. We have a great show for you this week featuring experts on agriculture's shrinking environmental footprint and the push to pass the USMCA trade agreement. But before we get to those interviews, I want to encourage you to keep us with you all harvest long. You can find and subscribe to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast in your favorite podcast app, including popular apps like Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify, and iHeartRadio. Not only do we bring you new episodes every other Monday, we now have a library of 22 podcast episodes. That's about 10 hours for your podcast listening enjoyment, including information from experts who debunk activist claims about livestock farming and the environment. We've had fascinating discussions with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the new Dean of Iowa State's College of Ag and Life Sciences, as well as the CEO of Fareway and even an interview with an astronaut. Hey, it's all in there, and more, so start bingeing our past podcast episodes of this harvest season. Well, we're going to start this week's podcast episode with a discussion about agriculture's shrinking environmental footprint. That's right. I said shrinking. Dr. John Newton is the Chief Economist for American Farm Bureau and he recently wrote a column that dives into some key numbers providing agriculture's environmental progress over the years. Spokesman Editor Dirck Steimel gave Dr. Newton a call to discuss those findings.
Dirck Steimel: John, agriculture faces a challenge of feeding the world's growing population while protecting the environment. How have U.S. farmers been able to do that?
Dr. John Newton: I think it's important to recognize that U.S. farmers have always been good stewards of the land. When you look now and in 2019, the top soil practices, no-till conservation. We're installing more methane digesters across the country to take what was once a waste product and turn it into an energy product and a fertilizer. Farmers are doing a lot of their improvement, productivity yields are getting better, so they're doing as much as they can to provide more food, healthy food, high quality food products while also paying attention to Mother Earth.
Dirck Steimel: Are there numbers that we can look to that show what farmers have been able to accomplish in that?
Dr. John Newton: I think one of the best numbers, you know, when you look at the Environmental Protection Agency, their greenhouse gas inventory data shows that A. farming and ranching, agriculture in general represents about 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. economy. That's well below what you see in the electricity and transportation sector. But then when you take into consideration land use changes, forestry efforts, we're actually, you know, agriculture, the carbon sequester station efforts of plants and trees take more out of the atmosphere than what agriculture contributes in terms of greenhouse gas emission. So agriculture does do a lot to protect the environment.
Dirck Steimel: Livestock farming, especially cattle production has been criticized as being a heavy contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Is that criticism fair?
Dr. John Newton: Absolutely not. I mean, when you look at livestock production in the United States, we're talking about emissions from hogs at less than 0.04% milk production less than 1%, cattle less than 2%, total livestock emissions less than 3% of all emissions from the U.S. economy. So I think for folks that, that point to livestock as the solution or meatless Mondays or anything of that nature, that's a short sighted attempt to try to address the bigger problem. Livestock producers are doing a lot. They've done a lot. And when you think about what's on the horizon with feed additives, even further reduce emissions from livestock and then, you know, increase adoption of digester technology. Livestock's a great case study for some sectors even being able to go net zero on emissions. And I think that's a fantastic story.
Dirck Steimel: Do we have evidence, John, that livestock's environmental footprint is shrinking?
Dr. John Newton: Well, I think one of the best ways to demonstrate, you know, actually that all of agriculture has a shrinking environmental footprint is our productivity gains. We're producing 270 times more food and agricultural products in the United States than we did 50 years ago. While inputs haven't changed at all. And so when you look at greenhouse gas emissions in aggregate, and then you look at our improved productivity just about every sector in agriculture is seeing a lower per unit contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
Dirck Steimel: You mentioned new technologies in livestock. Are there new technologies throughout agriculture that will help reduce agriculture's environmental footprint, including greenhouse gas emissions?
Dr. John Newton: Absolutely. I think one of the, one of the biggest ones that we're seeing a lot of people talk about today is, you know precision agriculture. And let's take a minute to look at precision irrigation for example. You know, the precise use of water or precise use of fertilizers and chemical applications means we can make those applications on a plant basis and not in an aggregate field level basis. And that allows us to conserve our natural resources better than we ever have before. And we're only touching the surface. We're only scratching the surface on ag innovation and technology. So I think agriculture is just going to continue to improve and it's important to tell the story, that we've been doing this for a long time. We're not starting from zero. Farmers and ranchers have always been good stewards of the land and always conserved their resources because that impacts their bottom line.
Dirck Steimel: That kind of leads into my next question, John. So far, the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making environmental improvements has been born by farmers themselves. What's the case for public investing in climate smart agricultural technology?
Dr. John Newton: Well, I like to think of the farm bill is the original green new deal. And I think that's the best way or the most direct way that we've seen taxpayers contribute to some of these environmental benefits that we're trying to achieve. You know, when you think about the environmental benefits associated with some of the equip CSP and CRP programs, you know, taxpayers have been helping but they can do a lot more. And I think where they can do more is public sector, agricultural R&D. We need to put more money to develop and find the new technologies that is going to help us continue to be productive and be the best in the world in a climate that that appears to be changing.
Dirck Steimel: Finally, I noted you mentioned in your op-ed that it's concerning that the United States is falling behind other countries such as China in devoting funds to basic ag research and development. Is that really a concern for us?
Dr. John Newton: I think it's a concern in a number of areas. You know, we've long been leaders in innovation, leaders in plant technology, plant science, agricultural technology, smart farming. We've been on the cusp for a long time and it's hard to stay in that position when you're getting outspent by others. And that's where public sector, R&D is so helpful. It benefits not only U.S. farmers and ranchers, but it helps people around the world. If we can develop the products, the commodities that people need around the world, think about, nutrition enhanced, rice for example in Sub-Saharan Africa. We need to continue to be leaders in that if we're not only going to help U.S. farmers, but help global agriculture meet their demands in the upcoming decades.
Dirck Steimel: Anything else that I haven't asked that you want to add to this conversation, John?
Dr. John Newton: I think probably one of the biggest components, you know, when you start to have this debate and you start to engage with, you know, farmers start to engage with others in the supply chain is that we could do a lot of things so long as it's economically sustainable and where farm income is, where commodity prices have been across the whole sector for four or five years. We need partners and we need people to share in the risks, sharing the reward. Farmers can't do it alone. So, you know, in order to be, you know, environmentally sustainable, we need to be economically sustainable and we look forward to having that conversation with partners along supply chain, in communicating how we can all do this together.
Laurie Johns: Some great information from Dr. Newton on the progress that's already been made and what it's going to take for ag to remain a leader in environmental protection. Thanks for sharing your expertise and your perspective, John. Now let's turn to a topic that's become all too familiar trade specifically the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement or USMCA. You know, the Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers just released a new study showing that one in five Iowa jobs stems from agriculture and 31% of our state's total economic output comes from ag. Agriculture is Iowa's economic engine and trade is absolutely critical to keep that engine humming. With that in mind, the Iowa Farm Bureau recently joined a 79 Iowa businesses and organizations representing ag, small business, food companies, chambers of commerce, and more in urging Congress to work together and pass USMCA. WHO Radio featured a USMCA round table discussion on The Big Show earlier this month and they've graciously allowed us to share that discussion with you, our Spokesman Speaks podcast audience. A big shout out to Andy Petersen and The Big Show team. Why is USMCA such a big deal for Iowans, not just farmers? Let's listen to highlights now from that Big Show USMCA discussion.
Andy Petersen: We're excited to have Craig Hill here, President of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. Joe Murphy is here, Greater Des Moines Partnership and Mike Ralston, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry to talk USMCA, the U.S. Mexico Canada agreement that was finalized in terms of an agreement a little over a year ago, I believe, but sits at, I don't even know if it's been introduced yet, at the U.S. Congress. We're waiting of course on this very important issue from an agricultural perspective. There's a rally on the mall in Washington today. Craig Hill, first of all guys, welcome to The Big Show. We appreciate you making some time for us. And I know Craig, you've got an Iowa delegation that's out in D.C.
Craig Hill: We do, we have about 40 farmers from Iowa representing the Iowa Farm Bureau. Both, they're actually in the lockup at USDA to interpret the report. And then another group that we'll be meeting with congressional delegations and talking about a lot of issues that are important, but trade being probably the premier issue for us right now.
Andy Petersen: Let's talk a little bit about Craig, the idea going in that had a lot of people nervous the renegotiation of NAFTA was do no harm. Right? So it looks like we've done that.
Craig Hill: Well trade policy in general has dominated our anxieties as farmers for some time now. And NAFTA was working and performing well for U.S. agriculture. An update, a modernization was needed. So we welcomed that, we've got that negotiated now. It's done in USMCA and we just need to get this approved and put some certainty and predictability back into our trade arrangements.
Andy Petersen: But it's not exclusively agriculture, Mark. I would imagine that sees the importance of this.
Mike Ralston: I've been called way worse. That's okay.
Andy Petersen: Oh, um, what's it say? Yep. It certainly does. M I K E means Mike every time I apologize.
Mike Ralston: No, that's okay. That's okay. Yeah, there Craig is right. Some really strong things for agriculture, but some really important things for manufacturing in the state. Canada and Mexico are by far Iowa manufacturers largest trading market. And gosh, we do, I think we were all talking before $6.6 billion worth of trade between those companies, just the state of Iowa or those countries. So this is important to farmers, manufacturers, business people to all of us as Iowans.
Andy Petersen: Yeah. This is why you're on the conversation today, right Joe?
Joe Murphy: Yeah, absolutely. And I think when you think about NAFTA and the great foundation that that laid for our, for our trade policy going back into the '90s when you think about back to the early nineties, things didn't exist such as transfer of data and eBooks and streaming videos and all of those sorts of things. So the, one of the really great benefits, the unsung benefits of USMCA is the fact that we have these updates on trade relating to the digital economy or the e-economy that is so vitally important to the way that we all do business. Whether you're in a radio station here in downtown Des Moines or doing some crop work out in the fields today, I mean technology, the digital economy is crucial to every sort of business owner and developer in the nation.
Andy Petersen: I can tell you guys this, if a year and a half ago or two years ago or three years ago, you would've told me that we would be sitting down to an hour long necessary round table discussion on trade, I would have probably rolled my eyes and probably laughed at the idea seemed preposterous, but here we are and I guess it's necessary.
Joe Murphy: It is necessary. And you know, I think, as you look around the state of Iowa, you've got business interests, agricultural interests, all aligned on this issue. And that's a really good thing for the people of Iowa. And we've asked and we've all sort of drafted a letter to our entire congressional delegation urging them to pass the USMCA. We're heading into a presidential election here next year and it's just so vitally important that we take care of this for the good of the country before Congress concludes their work this calendar year. We wouldn't have expected it either a year and a half ago, but here we are and we have to take every opportunity that we can to make sure that we articulate a vision and a message to our delegation that this is important to Iowans.
Andy Petersen: Did you just say Joe, 40 working days the congress has left to the end? First of all, growing up on a farm and knowing how busy harvest season is, the idea that there's only 40 working, working days left until the end of the year is nuts. But be that as it may.
Joe Murphy: A little bit different timing there for the United States Congress. Yeah, there's roughly, they're back now from the August recess. In full working order now and until this year they have to end this year they have about 40 working days left in Congress to take care of this issue and I'm sure there's a whole host of other things that we don't need to get involved in today that they need to work on debt ceiling, budget, being one of them, you know, avoiding the government shutdown obviously is a huge issue for all of us as well.
Andy Petersen: He is Joe Murphy, Greater Des Moines Partnership. Mike Ralston is here with the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and Craig Hill, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President. I posted on Tuesday the news and the letter that these folks along in partnership with 79 ag and Iowa business groups sent to the Iowa Congressional delegation that, basically what Craig said, get this done like yesterday.
Craig Hill: That's correct. We need, you know, we need certainty brought back to the market and you look at how polarized our politics are today and the lack of action. I've heard someone mentioned that even a blank sheet of paper might not get passed by Congress today, but this is a win-win for everybody. Everybody can come together and rally around this agreement, regardless of your party, Iowans, farmers, the nation all wins with the passage of this agreement. And with the limited time to get it done, we hope to get it on the table soon for a vote.
Andy Petersen: Mike, why sign onto the letter? Why get involved here in this campaign? What's the importance of getting this done so quickly?
Mike Ralston: Andy, it's pretty basic, for ag markets, for industrial markets, for all kinds of business markets. This deal is a big one. It represents over half of the manufacturing exports of this state. Over half of our manufacturing exports go to these two countries. We were joking, I'll make a comment about Craig's comment about the, it's good for everybody. It really is. We were joking before we came in, Joe had mentioned he was talking to somebody and, and there's no sides to this. Everybody benefits from this passage. There are a couple of components we haven't talked about that are big deals. One is, there's increased protections for intellectual property that's big for Iowa manufacturers for all of us. There are also some changes that make enforceable labor standards. A core part of this agreement that's good for labor in Iowa and across the country. So there really is just one side here and that's a side that says we've got to pass this now.
Andy Petersen: Is that kind of the same thing for you, Joe, as far as the, the immediacy on this?
Joe Murphy: Yeah, I think so. You know, we need a trade deal. A trade deal is better than no deal. And going back to the do no harm that the negotiators have been pursuing for some time, it's just so critically important that we continue to have that Iowans continue to access to these markets, whether it's our top two trading partners in Canada and Mexico. And if I could take a step back and just think more globally, on trade agreements. You know, Iowans are very entrepreneurial people, whether you're in the farm fields or other places. When you think about the economic development of the world, 92% is outside the confines of this country. And so we need to really be thinking about how we can have access to markets not only in our neighbors to the north and to the south, but the entire globe. This is such a small world now and we need to be able to sell our products, sell our grain, and communicate in a very timely fashion and trade deals and USMCA in particular really gets us to that area of focus.
Andy Petersen: I suppose we have to get into the politics of it a little bit at least. And so let's start with you Joe. The news, the latest news on this this morning was that, Robert Lighthizer, who's the U.S. negotiator with these things along with apparently the Treasury Secretary in a lot of cases, but he had submitted some responses to some questions among house members, what they call a working group. Mexico is working on passing it, I believe. Canada has passed it. And so where are we at in this process?
Joe Murphy: We need to, we have not passed it, right? I mean, the administration will be hopefully sending the texts to Congress quickly so Congress can start their process and in passing this, you know, monumental trade deal. But the administration has been working with members of both sides of the aisle on their concerns. And that's part of the American process, right. And the process that Congress goes through. So I think the time to ask questions, getting answers is certainly important, but I think we need to straighten this out once and for all, get a deal passed so that we can get on with our daily lives from business and Industry and agricultural standpoint.
Andy Petersen: Help me out a little bit here guys, and anybody can answer. The deals been made, right?
Mike Ralston: That's correct.
Andy Petersen: Congress really can't go in and change it without having to go back to Mexico and Canada?
Mike Ralston: Right. If there's any change, it has to be, well, Canada would have to pass it again. Mexico hasn't passed it, but they'd have to look at it and pass it still. We'd have to pass still. We really want this agreement to go as is. One of our folks happened to visit with Congresswoman Axne and she had mentioned that the caucus in the house was looking at some issues, but felt positive about their ability to get some answers. That was encouraging. We hope the House majority does get the answers they need, get seriously clarified. Iowa senators have been real champions on this issue.
Andy Petersen: Some of this is process, right? I mean there's some of that, some of the delay is, but it's hard to tell Craig what is processing and what isn't sometimes.
Craig Hill: Well, it takes years and years for a multilateral agreement, like the North America agreement. And you know, the text that we started with in '94 has been looked at and modernized and updated, as I mentioned before. And it takes a lot. It's like a potluck, you know, everybody brings something and everybody wants to take something home. And the negotiation has been done and in the best interest of the U.S. And we have a product here that's ready to go. We just need to get Congress to take an action. And it encourages investment in America when you have certainty around trade. And we've got, you know, some negotiations ongoing with Japan, China, many other countries around the world. And until you get this one done, it really, you know, doesn't set the stage well for the rest.
Andy Petersen: So the key question I guess would have to be, Craig, what's the next step in this? Is it process oriented to have it introduced and that sort of thing? Or could Congress like take it up tomorrow if they want to?
Craig Hill: No, that's correct Andy. We need the Speaker of the House to put this on the floor of the House for a vote. And you know, we've had a lot of positive feedback from House members that, you know, they're willing to move forward on this measure. So I think it, you know, lands on the lap of the Speaker to get this on the floor and get it voted and move forward. And the Senate will have to take a look at it too. But I think that's a pretty positive of view from the Senate side, so.
Andy Petersen: There's all kinds of talk, Mike, about this. In fact, I think it was Peter Navarro yesterday who came out and said there's 100% chance that this thing goes through at the end of the year. That's a pretty high percentage.
Mike Ralston: It was encouraging me to hear that. I'd rather have Nancy Pelosi say that, but here's the good news for Iowans and for Americans. Speaker Pelosi is pretty smart. She's a smart policy person. She's a smart political person. And in the end, we really need this agreement. We being United States of American, we're really hopeful and believe that it will pass. They don't have a lot of time though, as we've talked about. They need to get at it.
Andy Petersen: Joe, you were talking earlier about less than 40 days. I mean, is that reasonable to be able to get this done in that time?
Joe Murphy: It's the reality that we live in. So it's whether or not it's reasonable or not, I guess it doesn't really matter. It's sort of the timeline that we're given, and not to add a further wrinkle into it, but, Canada actually has elections at the end of October, I think October 21st. And so the time crunch could be even more pinched than it than it is as I'm scrolling through news reports today. But I think the bottom line is as Mike and Craig have talked about is this needs to move forward. There's been a lot of work in groups. There's been a lot of questions and answers. And I do want to say also that while we've been working with our congressional delegations, Representative Finkenauer and Representative Axne have been very, very helpful in expressing our concerns to the House Democratic majority, working with them exclusively. We were all invited just last week or the week before to provide comment directly to Congresswoman Axne. And so we appreciate that support. And obviously Senators Grassley and Ernst as Craig has mentioned, have been extraordinarily supportive as well. So I think we're all knowing that we need to get to the right place. It's just a matter of timing and process and the internal machinations of the United States Congress, which can sometimes be difficult.
Andy Petersen: So is that suggesting that Canada, after their elections, if things change, might want to go back and renegotiate, the likelihood may be higher that they could do that, if we haven't ratified it?
Joe Murphy: It's just another variable I think that everybody needs to take into account. I mean, the current government is in place right now. There's elections coming up. There's an agreement already agreed to there. So it's a complicating factors as Craig and Mike have pointed out multiple times when you talk about multilateral agreements. The sooner we can wrap this up, the sooner everybody can get on with their daily lives and their business and agricultural lives and feeding the world quite literally and producing great Iowa products.
Andy Petersen: Joe Murphy's here, Mike Ralston's here, Craig Hill is here with us. All part of the signatory 79 ag and business groups to a letter sent to the Iowa Congressional delegation saying we need this done in essence asap, before the end of the year. And I mentioned Craig, $6 billion of Iowa goods end up in Mexico. They're our top trading partner.
Craig Hill: Yeah, absolutely. 97% of the imported corn to Mexico is from the U.S. 40% of the pork that we export as a country goes to Mexico. And of course Iowa's number one in corn and pork. So this is incredibly important to us. Canada is a great partner. These are our closest neighbors. So you would think that we would have, you know, great trading relationships with those closest neighbors. And that's what USMCA is all about.
Andy Petersen: And obviously from not only an ag perspective, which is Iowa's largest industry, Mike, but business in general, a lot of Iowa goods end up down there.
Mike Ralston: Well you're right, Andy. A lot of Iowa goods end up in Canada and Mexico and a lot Iowa jobs depend on it. And manufacturing alone over 25,000 Iowa jobs depend on manufacturing. It can be sourced back to those two countries as far as exports. So it's a big deal.
Andy Petersen: Is there a call to action, Joe?
Joe Murphy: I think the call to action would simply be communicating to those in a federal elected office that this needs to be done as quickly as possible. We've taken the approach so far of being very forthright and very open and honest with our congressional delegation. We urge your listeners to do the same. It's at that point where all hands are on deck and we just gotta get this done.
Andy Petersen: If a vote is taken - now I get to put you on the spot. Do you think it'd pass? I'm not going to ask you if you think it's going to get done by the end of the year, but it's gotta get done at some point.
Joe Murphy: It has to get done. And as been mentioned many times before on the show, we don't like uncertainty and so we need to just get this done wrapped up. I think it will eventually pass, but the sooner it passes, the better it is for all of our producers in the ag world and our business manufacturers in the business world.
Andy Petersen: And Craig looking at where the markets are, I mean we're just talking about this off the air. We're going to have likely a 2 billion bushel less corn crop this year. The market is still the same place. Obviously you say, well NAFTA is still in place. It's still good for agriculture but you need to get to that next level.
Craig Hill: Absolutely, absolutely. And you know we have relationships all over the world to market our crops and our livestock. We just need to harden those with rules, a rule based system that everybody understands. Clear rules.
Andy Petersen: Well fellas, thanks for all your hard work here on behalf of not only agriculture but hardworking Iowans all over. We appreciate the conversation today.
Laurie Johns: Yes, trade really is that important. There is a lot at stake when it comes to USMCA and we certainly appreciate your help communicating to our elected representatives why we need, we all need to get this trade deal done and over the finish line. Well we're nearing the end of this week's episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. But one more thing before you go, you know, this is your last chance to enter two different contest. We're running now. If you like meat or the Iowa Hawkeyes, pay attention now. The Fill Your Freezer challenge allows you to complete a short quiz and learn about the nutritional benefits of meat and how Iowa livestock farmers care for the animals and the environment and you get a chance to win $200 of meat from your local Fareway store. Each of Fareway's 107 Iowa locations is giving away this $200 meat package. Someone's going to win at your local Fareway, so hey, might as well be you. The second contest is a chance to win tickets and sideline passes for the American Needs Farmers football game, which is October 12th at Kinnick Stadium. The Fill Your Freezer challenge ends September 30th and the ANF contest ends October 2nd. Now you can still enter both contests by heading out to IowaFarmBureau.com that's IowaFarmBureau.com. That does it for this episode. Be sure to tune in for our next episode of the podcast on October 7th until next time. Thanks for reading The Spokesman. Thanks for all the great stories and inspiration, and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks.
Narrator: Thank you for listening to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast by Iowa Farm Bureau. Check out more podcasts and articles from The Spokesman at IowaFarmBureau.com/Spokesman. You can also find and subscribe to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast in the Apple Podcasts app, Google Play, and other popular podcast apps. We appreciate your ratings and reviews and welcome your feedback at Podcast@ifbf.org.
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