A Conversation On Conservation And Stewardship

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Tom FitzGerald, Director, Kentucky Resources Council, Inc.
Kentucky Agricultural Council Annual Summit
Marriott East
November 15, 2013

I appreciate being invited to be part of this panel, and for the opportunity to talk about something other than natural gas liquids pipelines. I'd like to welcome you to Metro Louisville, where we practice a crop rotation of asphalt and concrete, and where we punctuate our arrogance and ignorance of the importance of safeguarding farmland by naming our new subdivisions after the most prominent natural feature or species that the development has obliterated.

When 34% of Kentuckians randomly polled in 2009 incorrectly chose as the definition of “biodiversity,” “the many differing opinions on environmental issues;” when the average urban child has such a deficit in interaction with an understanding of nature that he can name 1,000 corporate logos but cannot name 10 native things in the backyard, we cannot expect a culture to understand or to value the protection of diversity in nature and the protection of food quality, soils and farms. Current educational goals minimize the importance of education concerning ecosystem values and services, the interconnection of agriculture and food with public health and community health, and the natural sciences, and there must be a fundamental reform of curricula and teaching methods to encourage place-based education in these areas.

We have our work cut out for us, but I have no doubt that together we are up to the task.

I have spent the better part of 41 years as an environmental advocate, hopping from crisis to crisis, and rarely pausing to acknowledge that these individual crises are symptomatic of a larger failure a failure of a system that relies not on “creative destruction,” but on destructive consumption a failure to incorporate into our lives and our laws an appropriate respect and humility in the face of our dependence on and responsibility for the natural systems upon which human life rests.

The oft-stated need to achieve “balance” is the usual mantra in the field of energy and the environment, born of the powerful and destructive myth that protection of the environment, of public health, and of biological diversity, must be “balanced” with the need for economic growth and material prosperity because the two cannot be achieved together and are diametric opposites, requiring the sacrifice of one to achieve the other. It is as absurd a suggestion as would be the idea that a healthy marriage is one that has just the right balance of physical abuse and romance. Truth is, we have balanced the books on energy and the environment by cooking them for years, and now, at the end of a fossil-fueled binge, the books are starting to cook us.

I do not subscribe to the belief that we are, as a species, “hard-wired for destruction,” as one commentator has stated, because down that path lies cynicism. I do fear, though, that we are at risk of running up a deficit in our natural capital from which we cannot recover, from our toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance regarding the need to incorporate into our lives and laws those principles of wise use and stewardship that allow us to live and prosper within our natural means rather than to attempt to “balance” short-term material comfort with the managed destruction and biological impoverishment of those systems.

64 years removed from Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, our land ethic has not yet expanded the concept of “justice” to include intergenerational obligations and the responsibility of this generation to safeguard the land and water so that the ability of future generations to fully utilize those resources is not permanently compromised. 43 years after the first Earth Day, we need to move the conversation beyond the licensed, metered degradation of our land, air, and water resources, to ending pollution, restoring nature, and rewarding stewardship in all of its facets.

Two significant challenges lie ahead for our nation - those of addressing nutrient impacts on our nation's waterways, and adaptation to and minimizing of climate change. Both challenges present threats as well as opportunities for the agriculture community. Few sectors of our economy and society are more vulnerable to climate change than agriculture, where it is expected that:
  • higher levels of warming will eventually negatively affect growth and yields,
  • extreme weather events such as heavy downpours and droughts will likely reduce crop yields because excesses or deficits of water have a negative impact on plant growth;
  • Weeds, diseases, and insect pests will benefit from warming and a higher carbon dioxide concentration, increasing stress on crop plants and requiring more attention to pest and weed control;
  • Increased heat, disease, and weather extremes are likely to reduce livestock productivity, and
  • Forage quality in pastures and rangelands generally will decline with increasing carbon dioxide concentration because of the effects on plant nitrogen and protein content, reducing the land’s ability to supply adequate livestock feed.
One of the aspects of the failed Waxman-Markey Bill that I believe had particular merit and should be seriously evaluated for adoption as a stand-alone program in Kentucky, was the offset program, to be managed by USDA, providing for carbon offsets to be created from better management of crops and animal waste, sequestration in the soil, afforestation and better forest management, and other practices that the USDA determined provided creditable carbon offsets. Those offsets would be monetized, bringing revenue to farms to compensate for their contribution to carbon and other greenhouse gas management.

Given the uncertain status and feasibility of carbon capture and geologic sequestration, and the lack of feasible removal of CO2 from existing power plant emissions, I hope that as the EPA moves forward to control emissions from the industrial sectors it will craft a strategy broad enough to allow trading between the industrial and agricultural and silvicultural sectors, who can incorporate measures to sequester and offset carbon and other GHG emissions in the short- and mid-term, providing direct incentives for the value of better land and waste management practices and better aligning conservation with market signals.

As my friend Pete Goodmann observed, the framework is in place, with conservation districts, a new generation of forward-looking farmers and producers, technical support from universities and state and federal agencies.

What we need are the resources and leadership to help us meet the challenges of nutrient and carbon management and sequestration to the agricultural community through our land-grant universities, government agencies, soil and water conservation districts, NRCS offices and other providers. We need to add to our state agricultural development funding and university research priorities, agricultural GHG emission mitigation and carbon management. The current funding priorities of diversification of crops and productivity need to be broadened.

To meet these challenges, we need to make place-based education on the value and functioning of natural systems a core of primary and secondary education. Incorporation of “bioblitzs” into curriculum, where institutions of higher learning can partner with elementary schools to conduct outdoor assessments of flora and fauna, and in so doing increase our biological inventory, immerse kids and their parents and guardians in natural environments and build constituencies for protecting wild places, rural farmland, and urban parks.

Agriculture and land use planning have an uneasy relationship, in no small part because many land use plans historically placed little value in protecting farmland, watershed, and connected natural corridors. In communities such as Metro Louisville, agricultural land is considered “undeveloped,” underscoring the lack of value placed on agricultural landscapes and the many services they provide for the larger community. KRS Chapter 100 should be amended to include, as a mandatory land use plan element, plans for identification and protection of prime and significant farmland.

At the national level, we must address the underlying dysfunction of a food system that wastes up to a third of what is produced, and which requires unsustainable inputs of fossil fuels that in a caloric sense exceed the output produced. We should end market distortions that send the wrong signal to farmers and instead reward stewardship, and adopt a 50-year farm bill.

In the end, Wendell Berry is right when he says “it is all about affection.” As Marian Wright Edelman observed, “God did not call us to loot the earth and each other, God called us to love the earth and each other.”
Hope will begin, as in the resettling of our souls and spirits, and in our striving to be less acquisitive and less aggressive in our relations with each other and with the land.

By Kentucky Resources Council on 11/15/2013 5:32 PM
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