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Bruce Knight: Let's sow seeds for sustainable farm technology

The rancher and Capitol Hill insider finds that agriculture is suddenly "cool and sexy." That's one way to get started feeding 9 billion people.

Catch Bruce Knight in person at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.

Bruce Knight says he feels like spring has finally arrived for sustainable agriculture.

“For the first time in my life, agriculture is cool and sexy," he says. "That's something we're not used to. We're got to figure out how to make the most of that to solve one of the biggest challenges of our time, one that concerns us all: how to feed 9 billion people,” he says.

A third-generation rancher, Bruce Knight has been involved in policy-making for some three decades, including as the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2006-2009.

“As a farmer, you have to take risks. There's a season for each decision. You can't take decisions outside of natural cycles,” he says. “I have found this approach to be very transferable to the political process,” he added, tongue-in-cheek.

In his view, the current natural cycle in policy making is marked by common-sense approaches to sustainability sprouting aplenty. And that is good news.

“The science and the economy cause people to have a dispassionate debate and step away from convictions,” he points out. A good example of this development is the emerging use of life-cycle analysis (cradle-to-grave, grass-to-glass) to incorporate sustainability in decision-making in the market place and in government.

“It's important, for instance, that we can scientifically assess the ecological footprint of an organic orange versus a conventional orange; it turns out that it's not necessarily what many of us would assume,” he says.

A most positive outcome of a science-based, practical approach to sustainability, Knight indicated, is the platform it provides for all players in the value chain to come together, from the agriculture technology vendors and farmers, to retailers and regulators.

“The most successful sustainability strategies involve all practices and aspects of the value chain. My job is all about trying to find that sweet spot,” says Knight, who leads his own consulting practice, Strategic Conservation Solutions, for conservation and environmental issues related to agriculture.

For example, Knight was instrumental in developing the Biogas Roadmap released last summer by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, outlining voluntary measures that farmers and dairy producers can implement to increase the use of methane digesters.

“I worked on behalf of U.S. dairy farmers to help them improve grass-to-glass sustainability by improving waste management. My job was to identify the impediment to the adoption of biogas, and to figure out how to strip away regulatory barriers,” he explains.

Back at the farm, sustainability is a prevalent concern.

"Farmers feed people, we take care of our families, and we are driven by the fact that over 7.5 million people depend on us producing safe and sound food. How we do that responsibly, when new farmland is limited and water is getting scarce?” he asks.

Furthermore, the market compounds the pressure as consumers increasingly demand food from a sustainable value chain.

“Despite a fairly robust framework of environmental regulation, there's actually tremendous leeway with agriculture since, historically, the sector has operated mostly through volunteer programs rather than regulation,” says Knight.

As a result, farmers navigate a relatively open albeit confusing regulatory landscape; hence the urgency to bring all stakeholders around the table.

Emotion, however, is one significant hurdle to overcome in order to move that process forward and make progress toward feeding the planet come 2050, according to Knight.

“If I could change one thing, it would be to take the emotion out of the conversation about agriculture technology. We need to keep the current debate between organic and conventional products more science-based. As for the GMO controversy, it is distracting us from getting ready to feed 9 billion people. We're going to need every system we can embrace to achieve that goal, organic and conventional and biotechnology,” he says. “We need to develop mutual respect.”

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