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Ed Schafer- Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture: The 2008 World Food Crisis, Building the Organic Label, and G.M.O.s’ Potential Power for Good

May 14, 2020

Ed brings one of the most diverse agriculture perspectives to the podcast to date. He is the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 2 time governor of North Dakota, and he has led a multi-national consumer products business as well as many entrepreneurial start-ups. Ed played a pivotal role in many of the biggest agriculture events and movements of the 21st century.

This week in Agriculture Adapts:

  • Tackling the 2008 world food crisis; learnings for a safe & resilient global food system
  • What it was like to build the USDA organic label and why it may be more “wishy washy” than you’d expect
  • G.M.O.s are a spectrum, we can’t bunch them all together and rule them out– there is too much potential for good
  • How silicon valley jumped the gun with ag-tech


References mentioned in the episode

00:00 / 00:00


Borna (ClimateAi) 0:03
This is agriculture adapts by ClimateAi. Every week we speak with industry leading executives and farmers, non academics to get a 360 view on how the agriculture sector is innovating to stay ahead of a changing climate. I’m your host Borna Poursheikhani, and I am your co host Himanshu Gupta. We’re a team of climate scientists and agriculture entrepreneurs trying to make farming more resilient, profitable and equitable as we transition to a new age of agriculture. This podcast is our journey as we explore the hurdles and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry to feed the world. Hello, and welcome to another exciting episode of agriculture adapts with us today we have the one and only Ed Schafer, the former US Secretary of Agriculture and the two time governor of North Dakota. That is not to be confused with your average politician. He has led a multinational consumer products business, several entrepreneurial startup companies and remains highly active in North Dakota as well as in the broader realm of us. Agriculture and brings a diverse, well informed and humble perspective to his work. And I am extremely excited to dig into some of the key challenges that we as a society, and an agricultural community have faced and continue to face today. And thank you for joining us.

Ed Schafer 1:14
Yes, I’m glad to be with you. Borna. Thank you. Hello to your listeners today.

Borna (ClimateAi) 1:18
Yeah, just want to before we start just talking about for one second, how humble and funny of a guy at is because when I asked for the introduction, you just said, you can just say, Here’s Ed and I was like, I gotta give you more than that. You were, you’re the governor and the Secretary of Agriculture. The way we usually like to start these episodes is by sort of starting by hearing from you about your story and your connection to agriculture and just your journey today here.

Ed Schafer 1:44
So I’m born and raised in North Dakota. I grew up here in the city, not too big of a city but the capital, Bismarck, North Dakota, and my parents have obviously both grandparents since age were farmers were, you know, grew up but by the time I was born, my parents had moved to town. So my agricultural background certainly comes from an agricultural state going up in that area where still, you can touch the land where you understand the cycles of life and death and agriculture and how that shapes an individual. It’s pretty interesting. I went into the business sector, after graduating with an MBA from the University of Denver, and went off to the east coast and tried to make my life there for 15 years in the private sector. And that I really enjoyed it was great work. I was reasonably successful. And as things worked out, I started considering why why didn’t business people get involved in politics? I, you know, looked at that, and of course, you can’t run government like a business. We all know that. But certainly, business skills, I think are required and needful in that public sector. And so I started complaining about it all the time. That business people ought to get involved in the public sector. And finally, some friends sent me down and said, hey, maybe instead of complaining about it, you should do something. And I think they just wanted me to shut up. But anyway, I decided, you know, they’re right. I mean, I should do something about it. And if business skills are needed in the public sector, I need to run for public office. I didn’t know if I was Republican or Democrat, or I didn’t know even what the system was. But what I did know is if I were going to apply business principles that had to be done in the executive branch, and if those business principles were going to become important in the direction of government, the only place the only strike point you can do that, and it’s governor’s office. So I decided to run for governor. Everybody said, You can’t do that. There’s no way you have to, you know, start low someplace dog, get yourself and then work your way up. Nobody just runs for governor. I thought that sounds like a good challenge. I did and in spite of being way down in the polls and not expected to win at all, we did win. And so I served two terms as governor of North Dakota and wonderful opportunities for public service and a time when our state was in the economic doldrums when education was tough, when Glenn just told job development was awful, and the economy was in a tank, we survived eight years, and actually turned the state, they pivoted the state into a real positive direction, which led to our reasoned exposure as the number one economy in the United States. And so that’s been a fun ride, and certainly was challenged a lot. Then with agriculture issues in North Dakota being an ag state, as we develop a policy not only in the state, but as they’re translating the national level, I became engaged in national organizations that became my name became known in agriculture cycles. And after the governor’s office, we went off, founded a telecommunications business, ended up selling that to sprint and dashing off to Washington DC and being the Secretary of Agriculture in the George W. Bush administration. So that continued my global engagement in agriculture has probably, you know, been the big point and leaving me here today for your past podcast.

Borna (ClimateAi) 5:27
Awesome. Thank you for that. And you skipped over one really interesting part. That’s, that’s one of my favorite parts of your story is in between your time as North Dakota’s governor in your time as US Secretary of Agriculture, you were participating in something called the junkyard wars. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ed Schafer 5:43
Wow, that was amazing. That was one of the first reality TV shows and it was a mechanical show they put a team in a junkyard and said you know, expose some kind of a mechanical device you had to build with items from the junkyard yet 10 hours. To do so, then the two teams, you know, competed with their devices against each other. It was fun and of course be in North Dakota people, we thought we grew up on farms and ranches, and, you know, cutting welding, and the other and fixing machines. And so we put together in North Dakota team had 1000 applications for the 2002 season. And, you know, that was narrowed down to 35 or something, and then we did some work and that was narrowed down to 12. Then we started the competition. We eventually ended up in the finals with our North Dakota team and breaker in the in the final.

Borna (ClimateAi) 6:38
I love that. I want to talk about your time as a secretary of agriculture. But before we do that, I wanted to talk about some of the key things that you did in North Dakota. So one of the things that you did was that you turn China into a primary export market, and I kind of wanted to just touch on does that relationship still exist today? And, and if so, like, what did you do to build up that foundation and how is it being affected now? tariffs.

Ed Schafer 7:01
It’s an interesting time now with China, as you know, I mean, that’s, you know, with our trade wars that are going on with the relationships between our two countries. It’s very been very difficult. But what I forged out in the past and not only me, but with a lot of people forged out was a business to business relationship with China, the private sector relationship with China. And what I was able to do in the governor’s office was take the strength of our agriculture production in North Dakota and take for example, soybeans, we went to China, we did a trade mission. We took soybean producers over there. We took farm organization groups over there. We made our way through the people who purchased site soybeans, the companies who purchase soybeans, I went on the docks and unloaded a ship of soybeans, you know, carrying 35 pound bags on my shoulder, you know, in there just to show them that we could build these relationships for North Dakota products. They have been using Oracle products and moving them into the Chinese market that proved very successful. And those relationships that I built then caused me to be appointed by President Clinton to task force to allow China to ascend to the WTO, the World Trade Organization. That was a successful project, then the relationships I built with future presidents and in agriculture secretaries and things like that, throughout that relationship continue to be there today.

Borna (ClimateAi) 8:31
And can you give our listeners a quick overview of what the US Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for? I think everyone knows at a high level what they do, but I think it’s kind of with a broad listener base, we would be interested to hear from you what that job actually entails, what kind of problems you grapple with and what it means to be Secretary of Agriculture.

Ed Schafer 8:48
And as an instance situation barn because we, you know, we look at the agriculture arena, USDA United States Department of Agriculture, the agriculture legislation that comes through The farm bills. And we’ve kind of think that’s what it’s all about. However 15% of the Agriculture Department is focused on production agriculture. So a small percentage, really, of the agriculture budgets and personnel, you know, are focused on production agriculture. That doesn’t mean to say that they’re not hugely important and most of the programs are focused there. But the USDA is responsible, obviously, for the generation of the world’s most abundant, safest, least costly food supply. And we want to keep that going in the United States of America. And so the USDA is responsible for that. Obviously, all the research that involves agriculture, the public research, university research is driven a lot by USDA, both in livestock and in cropping. You know, the USDA operates the US Forest Service service responsible for as you can imagine, the In the United States, and you know, and then you’ve got inspection, safety, storage, banking, safety net programs, insurance programs, and all those kinds of things run through the USDA, basically in an effort to support agriculture and land owner production in the United States of America.

Borna (ClimateAi) 10:21
So it’s a lot. So basically,

Ed Schafer 10:25
we had when I was there, we had 107,000 employees. Well, operating budget was $95 billion in the program authority was 285 billion. So you know, it was it’s a big job and a big department. It’s the fourth largest department in the United States. And it’s fun, I tell you, it’s it’s all eight kids. You know, it’s people who grew up in rural America or on farms and in small towns and then moved into agriculture policy, but there’s they’re still there and they know how to work and they care and they get done what you asked them to do, and It’s a quite a different department than the rest of the President’s Cabinet and one that day sure who to appreciate when I was there,

Borna (ClimateAi) 11:07
what would you say were kind of the key issues that you had to deal with during your time there.

Ed Schafer 11:10
Whirlpool crisis was a tough one. You know, we saw just global production tank all across the world with bad weather disease. And things are getting pretty hairy out there. So the United Nations or the World Food organization, which is an arm of the United Nations declared a food emergency or nutrition emergency, and all countries came together through the United Nations to deal with that issue.

Borna (ClimateAi) 11:35
And I want to like hone in on a component and kind of talk about this was a little over 10 years ago, at the time, where people are attributing this in part to climate change, or was climate change not really developed in a discussion that could be kind of like looped into these sorts of problems yet,

Ed Schafer 11:52
there was an element of climate change. Borna there was, you know, some conversation but the reality was the drama In yields, was clearly weather related. Now, the subset of that is climate change, right. But the focus was here, we, you know, in this place where we always had good weather to grow wheat, for instance, we got bad weather, you know, yeah, this country where we’ve always gotten good soybeans, we had bad weather. We had hail crops, we had a drought or whatever the case may be, there’s a lot of drought in the world and that year, but there was also a lot of disease and we had disease and lots of crops, decimating the production. So, you know, we just had to come together and say, how are we going to feed people in this difficult times? Because, you know, one of the underlying factors is hungry people make unstable governments. Right. You know, so the world order, you know, he had to be established here to make do

Borna (ClimateAi) 12:48
yeah, and tell us about that. Like there were there was a lot of countries that were starting to kind of go into disarray because of this right.

Ed Schafer 12:53
The problem you have is similar to what we see today with the Coronavirus except on a grander scale. mean you start to have some panic. So people start hoarding the food and not people in this case, government started hoarding the food. So they would they would put on, you know, restrictive export requirements. So you couldn’t export your rice crop, for instance, you had to keep it in the country. So, you know, they were trying to preserve the food for each country. So there were very difficult country to country skirmishes where certain country we relied on another country for production of a commodity crop all of a sudden, they couldn’t get. So they had no food, you know, they had no stores, they had nothing there. You had certain countries that we’re trying to build relationships like, okay, we’ll give you some wheat here or we’ll give you some soybeans here. But by the way, we want to have a hand in some of your policy decisions. So our policy decisions aren’t necessarily food related, but our social issues or whatever the case may be. Human rights are what you know. So you know, the the complexity of a situation like that becomes very intriguing because it goes so far beyond just supplying food everybody it gets the government government relationships, good and bad. And, you know, some leaders step up to the plate here and do well and some leaders go down the tubes and, and really try to change things to the negative standpoint. So it’s a it’s the one time when I saw, you know, the United Nations or certainly the World Food organization have a positive impact on nutrition around the world.

Borna (ClimateAi) 14:35
How do they go about doing that? How did they go about solving this kind of like, all of a sudden, huge global issue? Like what what were the different systems processes, tools that they deployed for everyone?

Ed Schafer 14:48
Well, yeah, the the first one that comes to mind, of course, is the United States of America has responsibility and I don’t know it’s a responsibility, but it’s the United States of America’s benevolence. People do not know that everyone A year, the people of the United States contribute 50% of the global disaster food supply. Oh, wow. So half of all the food aid in the world comes from the United States.

Borna (ClimateAi) 15:16
Is that a government system? Or is that from from the businesses themselves?

Ed Schafer 15:19
No, that’s it. That’s a government aid. Gotcha. So that that is that’s beyond our normal selling of production agricultural products to the rest of the world. This is food aid, where countries don’t have enough food or people that are hungry. We provide food aid and 50% of it. So when I arrived in Rome at the the summit that we were having on world hunger, people are going nice day staff do more than they say to have the morning go like Craig already doing more than half. It seems like everybody else has to step up. Well, of course, in the end, we had to step up with more, and did so not only did we provide for more commodities to be shipped We provided for Monetary Funds to be distributed in certain cases and under the right conditions to countries that needed them. And we also started to export some through military aid for Farm to Market opportunities, roads, consistent electricity, storage, you know, those kinds of things. So we we shored up with the United States about everything we could do to help other countries produce more food and consume more food because we did it. We also tried to solve some of the border to border skirmishes between some countries got him to drop the shields down and share relationships with food and nutrition across across borders, and try to get commitments from from governments to do that. And, again, a lot of it is just assuring people that this is not a situation that’s going to continue. We’re not going to continue to go down the tubes. We’re going to continue to produce good safe food and, and well, so it’s going to come back, we’re going to tough it out through some tough times here. But you know, this is a temporary situation and you will be taken care of.

Borna (ClimateAi) 17:12
And so this was in 2008. And it was largely and due to droughts, and a lot of grain growing regions as well as rising oil prices, right. The oil was used for for fertilizer and the transportation and that was increasing cost. And at the same time we had, we had the drought, the oil as a separate issue, but the drought component very tied to climate change. So I’m curious, like, what the solutions that were deployed mostly just to deal with that particular instance, or was there a systemic change that came about and I’m asking us because I’m curious to see if we’re ready for something else like this to happen in the future, or if we’re just as at risk as we were in 2008.

Ed Schafer 17:51
I think we are more prepared to handle something nice in the future then we were and a lot of it is modern. During the drought conditions, monitoring the growing conditions, monitoring the water, you know, which is in bad shape all over the world. But we’re more prepared to understand if something is coming, I believe. But the second, the second piece of it is, what changed? What was some of the things that changed, too, allow countries to provide more food for their people. And I can give you this example. Europe, of course, is an anti GMO organization. So the European Union oppresses African countries by saying if you want to grow crops and you want to move them into the European Union, they have to be GMO free. That’s great for the Europeans. That’s what they want to do. The problem with the African countries is they need GMO crops to operate with their soil conditions, their weather conditions and their output requirements, their yield requirements, so you know, GMO crops, give you more better with less inputs, longer storage, better tasting stronger nutrition products out there. If you remove the emotion from the GMO argument and put science in place, the African countries were being suppressed by by the European Union because that was their trading market. So one of the things that we worked on in the food crisis was saying, you know, how do we how do we use the to GMO products in Africa where the European Union’s pushing them down? And we got five countries in Africa to say, look, we’re it’s more important for us to feed our people that it is to be concerned about what the European Union is saying for our exports. So we have five countries that had accepted the carta haina protocol on safety and science for GMO products. They approved the GMO production, not all of it, but you know, certain crops, certain seeds, but everything starting to move and say and open up the doors for GMOs. So now, you’re 10 years into production. And so GMO products are there. They’re stabilized. They’re growing and acceptable. So now you’re providing a global marketplace, where you have better seeds, better production, less input, and better capable of handling the weather. So, you know, that changed. That changed in a way. So there’s been a steady movement about that sense.

Borna (ClimateAi) 20:26
What were the main traits that were being genetically modified or being put into these plants? Why do these African countries need the GMOs?

Ed Schafer 20:34
Well, the biggest one, of course, do you think of as rice and 50% of the world’s nutrition is in rice. You have African kids more than just Africa, but basically African kids who are blind who are dying, who have malnutrition, and things like that. And if you look at a product called golden rice, you know, golden rice is the modified genes to include nutritions and vitamins in the writes that prevent child blindness and provide better nutrition and longer storage. And, you know, so those kinds of things. So if you look at wheat in certain instances, wheat is not a GMO product in general. But you know, certain strains of wheat can be helpful. But you know, if you look at corn and maize, corn and maize in, in African countries and emerging countries, is a really strong commodity, a strong product, and you can with GMO seeds, or GMO altered seeds, you can grow it faster, you can grow stronger. And you know, those kinds of things are important when you’re trying to feed people.

Borna (ClimateAi) 21:37
And and this is a topic that we haven’t gotten to discuss very much on this podcast yet. So we’d love to just kind of dig in a little bit further here. What is your view on like the health impacts of GMOs because there’s different tiers, there’s like, we’re using GMOs to be weather resistant. GMOs have also gone through quite a progression. Now we’re using CRISPR as opposed to a more blunt instrument that we were using in the past. And then there’s the whole segment of like chemical applications where the plants are resistant to chemicals that are killing the pests. And some of the problems with that what what is your view on the whole spectrum of GMOs here?

Ed Schafer 22:10
As you look at the whole spectrum in general, genetically modified seeds are important for us as we move forward. If you look at it as saying, you know, we developed hybrid crops which was taking and grafting a good piece of this crop onto that stem and developing a better seed and a better production, right? GMO basically speeds up the hybrid process. And if you do that, if you look at it from a production standpoint, and keep it focused there, they’re strong protocols for safety. There’s prom protocol for testing of safety before these seeds could be produced and use. So I think there’s a structure around GMO that from a food and nutrition standpoint is important for us getting into some of the areas is, as you mentioned, you know, the the chemical seeding, or the or the chemical weeding that goes forth. You know, there’s a lot of controversy in that. And so you have in our area here in North Dakota and Red River Valley is a big sugar beet area. So we make sugar out of sugar beets, and sugar beets are GMO products. And so you know, they put the seed in the ground, they let the seed sprout, and then they go through and sprayed with chemicals, and that kills all the weeds and keeps the seed growing. And so it’s less expensive for the farmer to grow that crop. And in the end, you get more production because the weeds aren’t choking out the production of the sugar beets, you know, spraying that chemical on the ground, pushing it out there, where is it safe, isn’t it? All those kinds of things at this point in time, I still have trust in the FDA from the United States and our government’s oversight in their fields. The the agriculture community to respond and say these chemicals are good or bad. Probably have borne it is the time, you know, we go back and say, This product is bad. And we’ve been using it for seven years. And that’s a problem. You know, that’s a problem and it takes, you know, your Walk, walk down that path. And it’s a difficult situation. But I but I think the reality is, we have a growing population, we have less land to use for production in the world. And if we’re going to increase our yields, if we’re going to increase our storage capacity, if we’re going to increase nutrition, it’s going to have to be done through genetically modifying seeds. Now,

Borna (ClimateAi) 24:46
why do we have less land for production?

Ed Schafer 24:48
Well, there’s a lot a lot of reasons. One, one is industrialization and we were taking land out of production for concrete runways. And you know, I live here in Fargo, North Dakota. is the most I mean, it’s the I think the second richest Earth in the world. And, you know, I see field after field after field surrounding Fargo, North Dakota that’s taken out of production because you got a new apartment building you know parked over there, you know, whatever the case may be. So, you have the industrialization has taken, you have some land come is coming out of production because of water conditions. And we you know, the, the water conditions in the world today is something that I think is the most underrated problem that we have, because water is polluted. The recycling of water isn’t working well. We got too much junk in it. And so you’re spreading it all over some land. Maybe that land becomes alkaline, it won’t support growing the crop that used to support so you know, you have you have that whole process that’s taken land out of production, but all in all, we have less land under cropping than we used to but we are trying to Figure out how to grow more food because we have a growing population.

Borna (ClimateAi) 26:02
Yeah, sorry, I cut you off you the point that you were making was that was that we need GMOs to feed the growing population in the face of a lot of these new issues that are coming up many of them regarding or in relation to climate change.

Ed Schafer 26:14
In my opinion, if you look at climate change, how do you grow crops with a shorter growing season? For instance? How do you grow crops with a hotter growing season writes, for instance, as I mentioned, 50% of the world’s nutrition, rice is very sensitive to temperature, you know, just a degree change in temperature in the morning will change their rice production dramatically. So you know, how do we solve those issues? How do we get rice to grow in more extreme temperatures or not like the whatever. We’re going to solve those problems by calling whatever you want, maneuvering seeds, we’re going to we’re going to solve it by creating hybrids of this seed and that one that works better in this condition. In my opinion, I think GMOs are extremely important as we progress Nutrition and the globe today.

Borna (ClimateAi) 27:02
Yeah, and I think this is something that a lot of people have trouble seeing. They see it as a black and white picture. But really, genetic modification is kind of a spectrum of things. And I think the reason why a lot of people who are in the ag sector have less of a problem with it is because they’re so familiar with the process of breeding and grafting, that it seems like a more natural transition than it does for, say, an urban consumer. And that’s kind of an understanding that I didn’t I didn’t have in the very beginning. And you mentioned rice, we had a previous podcast episode about rice. And it’s not only the temperature that’s going to affect it, but precipitation patterns are going to cause a lot more arsenic in our rice and a lot of the growing regions where rice is being grown in the world today. And on top of that, the increasing carbon dioxide emissions are projected to reduce a lot of the nutritional components of rice moving forward. So seems like a that’s a pretty tough issue to solve. And, and maybe there are other ways to deal with it. But some level of genetic steering might be might be a necessity in places where they’re just trying to deal with with putting nutritious food on the table to make it through, you know, the next week or so,

Ed Schafer 28:05
when you think of the magnitude of the rice production in the world, we better do something to keep it going. Yeah,

Borna (ClimateAi) 28:12
yeah. And so kind of this this issue of GMOs makes me think about you were in your role as US Secretary ag when they’re kind of developing and formulating the organic label. What was that process? Like? Can you give us an inside view? Because my understanding is that a lot of folks thinks it’s very wishy washy, and there’s a lot of different kind of parameters that are set around it, depending on what you’re grilling, where you’re growing, how you’re growing it, can you give us a look inside what the organic label was like when it was being built?

Ed Schafer 28:40
Yeah. And it’s, you know, it’s a typical effort with public policy that is hard to work through. I mean, it’s, it’s just difficult and first of all, let me say this, I agree with those who say the USDA Organic label is wishy washy. Because I help development and yeah, and, you know, what happens is, you know, there’s comes a piece of policy coming into the USDA and says we want an organic label, we’ll leave it up to you guys to deal with it, which is always a difficult situation. But so the USDA has tons and so many capable people and, and efforts and, you know, look to look at the effort and say, Okay, how do we do this? Well, first of all, you have to define organic, organic means, does it mean, you have to have three years of nothing on that land before you start growing crops again, so that you’re sure it’s clean? Do you have to have safe zones around the field so that, you know, fertilizer can go in from another thing? You have to figure out how do you certify organic fertilizer and organic inputs, you know, to help with it, do you have to subsidize mechanical weeding or things like that you have to take you know, figure out okay, if we’re going to go back to Hand weeding our fields in are going to go back to migrant workers and all the situation that that contends with. And so we put our arms around and said, Okay, what is the definition or organic? So we come up with the definition of organic, then you have to publish that and you publish it in various magazines, communication devices, and certainly push it through the the agriculture organizations, the commodity organizations and things to say, okay, you know, what do you think and you give public input? Well, you get thousands and thousands of letters of public input saying you shouldn’t do it, you shouldn’t do it. Consider this take that out.

Borna (ClimateAi) 30:39
From what from what types of organizations?

Ed Schafer 30:42
Well, they would be from everything. I mean, you know, this broad range, it’s not it’s not just agriculture, it’s every First of all, it’s commodity crops. So say where what what what is organic corn me, what is organic wheat me? So you’ve got the commodity organizations and those two things saying this is what it is. means this is how we have to grow it, this is how you can grow it without chemicals or without processing or whatever the case may be, whether you can keep a self contained processing facility out or whether you have to clean the facility out for two days and then start over, you know, whatever, whatever it issue is. So they are giving you input from their expertise and their level of experience to say, this is how you can grow an organic crop of our commodity, you get scientists that are weighing in that saying, you know, this is a definition or this is not the definition. You get concerned citizens that read something on the internet and say, gee, you know, I heard that organic tomatoes cause somebody to die, you know, whatever. So, you know, you get that input. So it’s it just is unbelievably broad based and it is thousands and thousands of pieces of communication that you have to go through and consider and say okay, well do you put it in there or not in the And you generate, what you say is the final product, the final definition of what it is. And, you know, as I said, the reason is wishy washy is we took into consideration a whole bunch of different viewpoints a whole bunch of different sides. And, you know, that organic label is true to the extent that, you know, there are organic conditions under which it’s grown. But it is not a real strict tied down, fenced around definition of what organic is, and then you publish that twice. And after that, you know, six months period, whatever it is, then the USDA goes out and said, Okay, this is the requirements to get the organic label in the licensing process to get it.

Borna (ClimateAi) 32:48
What do you mean by that? What do you mean that it’s organic to the extent that it’s an organic conditions? Can you can you elaborate a bit further,

Ed Schafer 32:55
the USDA label assures consumers That organic conditions were used to grow that crop. So the definition of organic for instance, is say and wheat is three years of non production on the field. And then you know grown under organic conditions, which means you don’t use this fertilizer, you can’t do this process. You can’t disc it this way it this is just in this field under these conditions that is grown organically. What I can’t say with the USDA label is that there was a half a mile of distance between that field and another one that was being fertilized chemically, or in the case of wheat Say, say that had a chemical fallow right next door. So if you’re in strip agriculture, you grow your weed in strips, you’ve got a non productive piece and then a productive piece non productive and you rotate those and a lot of people chemical follow by In other words, when that piece of land sitting idle, they run chemicals on it to clean it, that might be Rick right next door to an organic patch of wheat. I can’t guarantee you that, under certain when conditions are the snap, you didn’t get some drifting. But it still gets covered under the organic label at USDA, because of the requirements that three years of idle land going into these conditions processed this way, it is deemed organic.

Borna (ClimateAi) 34:31
That makes sense. And so I’m going to say about kind of what my understanding of this and correct me if I’m wrong here, but my understanding is that there’s kind of two main things here. One of them is that the requirements may be different for different crops based off the needs of those crops and the different inputs and the different ways you need to manage them. And the other part is sort of this component of like, no farm can be considered an isolation and there are other environmental factors that can contribute to making it a less pure quote unquote organic And then it may have been

Ed Schafer 35:01
exactly I mean, you talked earlier about arsenic coming through rain, you know, onto a rice crop. Well, if that rice crop is organic and organic being organically grown, there are some people out there that say that’s not that’s not organic. So, you know, there’s the strict definitions. There are the realistic definitions, all of that stuff is mixed in. There’s a market for pure pure, pure or Granick. And there’s a market for organic conditions. And there’s a market for non organic

Borna (ClimateAi) 35:37
and kind of in the same vein as organic. I wanted to get this has become kind of a theme in this in this podcast that we always ask about this, but I’m curious to get your thoughts on regenerative agriculture, like do you think it’s scalable? Do you think it’s useful? Where do you think it can be implemented moving forward? Seeing that we do have to kind of ramp up production by 2050 or 2040. I forgot which one I think we have to double our food production. Do you think regenerative agriculture will help? Do you think it’s it’s not scalable enough to get us there? What’s your view on it?

Ed Schafer 36:06
Given the fact or the fact they estimate that we’ll have 10 billion people in the globe by 2050, the World Food organization has said we’ve got to double our production if we’re going to feed them. So that’s the challenge of today and what everybody is working toward. But, you know, I think the issue of responsible harvesting of crops of looking at these blue Tiki type of situations if that makes any sense, in the scheme of things, they become a smaller production by design. In other words, you can’t get the production on certain ways of delivering my my food. And if I have certain restrictions that I’m putting on myself and how I’m going to grow that part, how I’m going to regenerate this field, you know, Reality is agriculture is that they’re the land users, they depend on their life on using the land properly. And they’re responsible in harvesting and raising their animals and harvesting their crops. So, you know, regenerating agriculture means what it means that I’m going to, you know, kind of put back nutrition into my soil by growing legumes or something like that. I’m going to pound my water and re pump it back on. I’m going to, you know, whatever the case may be, but what always happens is, again, is that strict definition of GMO or organic, it’s, it’s, it provides a smaller, less productive segment that certain people are attracted to. And it’s important than that, you know, it’s we have to remember, these things are important and there are elements in the marketplace that require this kind of production. But if you look at regenerative agriculture, while It’s a emotionally attachment to the land and I’m going to take care of the land better, to do better. The reality is, yields are going anywhere. And if we’re going to increase our yields to people, these elements end up being small niche products in the grand scheme of things necessary, responsible, but they don’t bring enough yield to the process to take care of hungry people.

Borna (ClimateAi) 38:31
But that sounds like an unsustainable path forward, right? Like like these are these are big issues. Soil Health is a big issue. Carbon in the air is a big issue. Building resilient food systems is a big issue. And so it seems to me like if we, it seems like these are important issues that we need to tackle whatever the title we want to put on them, it doesn’t matter regenerative, you’re right has often been associated with like these extremely dynamic, small scale, sometimes larger scale operations that have a ton of stuff going on. But there’s a few practices that people can do to kind of hit home a lot of these, a lot of these bases soil health, less carbon in the air, that don’t have to buy into the entire system of regenerative agriculture. And it seems to me that if we’re looking at this from a macro view, like do you think we should be looking for ways to incentivize this kind of behavior? And if so, what are those ways like you, you come with a very unique background, you have a business background, and you have a public sector background, but you’re also someone who cares about the environment about conservation. I think during your term goes after you didn’t you arrange for for some portion of land to be bought by the US Forest Service someone?

Ed Schafer 39:42
You’ve been digging into my background,

Borna (ClimateAi) 39:44
I’ve been digging. So you have like you have like all these bases. And and I guess first my question would be like, do you agree that these are issues that we need to prioritize? And then after that, how do we incentivize that and is it just up to the market to do it or do we We need to kind of bring government in?

Ed Schafer 40:01
Well, I think I think here here is, you know, probably a better a better way to talk about these issues. He talked about regenerative agriculture, you know, what are you talking about? You’re talking about creating better soil conditions, right? You’re talking about using inputs sparingly. You’re talking about ways to harvest and, and transport and store, you know, less impacting nature on my final product. You know, those kinds of things. They’re very important. And what I think happens is we tend to trap these important issues in a phrase ology or a certain segment of society or a certain way they’re attracted and leading and we lose sight of the elements that are happening. They’re really important for the long term health of the earth. So what happens is yes, we went A few years ago or 10 years ago into no till drilling for agriculture, wheat and corn, well, you know, that meant you’re grinding that organic material back down into the soil, you’re putting nitrogen back in, in its natural and it is decomposing in the soil. It’s moving. Now, here’s another. Here’s another great example. There’s a company in North Dakota that’s developed a thing called the soil buster. It’s a radish that you put in as a cover crop or a second crop after you’ve harvested your wheat for instance. And we know that that compaction of the soil is a problem in a continual farming operation. So me that loosen up that soil. So here’s a crop that’s a radish be planted, after you pull your your commodity crop off the field and you never harvest it. You let it you know, you let it destruct in the soil health is not only losing The soil because of this growth, but the organic material stay in here. And so you’re preparing that soil in a better way. Those elements we have to keep transferring, improving yellowing, so to speak, so that we create better soil conditions, that’s going to create better yields. And that’s gonna help create nutrition for the world. I just don’t want to get trapped in these little pieces that are driven by the marketplace for a small element of our production.

Borna (ClimateAi) 42:29
Yeah, I totally agree. And when we were talking to Ray Goldberg, he was kind of saying the same thing. He was like, we get trapped in these in this terminology, that’s inherently polarized, and we forget the components that are important. But yeah, I totally agree. I mean, if we put the name aside, there’s just certain things we need to get done. And agriculture has a huge potential to be a tool to combat climate change. In that note, what do you think are the different levers that we can pull in order to incentivize carbon sequestration? That’s like storing carbon Soil for farmers because if we if we put the right systems in place, farmers will innovate around it. They’re the, they’re the greatest entrepreneurs. So how, what are the different ways that we can, we can incentivize that kind of behavior, agriculture can be used to mitigate the emissions of plenty of other industries, if we choose to set up a system that will allow it to, I’m curious if you’ve given that any thought,

Ed Schafer 43:20
Well, you know, you do and of course, a lot of our work at USDA was looking at the carbon sink from trees. So we’re responsible for the national forests, you know, how are we creating that that carbon capture in our forests and how can you measure it? And how can you economically incentivize it? So if you you know, if you look at that, then you say, Okay, how do you transfer that into the cropping patterns? What we can do? Well, you know, there are several things you can do. From an incentive standpoint, you know, one is you can add fields that are grown solely for cars. And capture certain products that I’m just like the radishes, I’m not gonna, I’m never going to harvest them, you know, I’m going to back in the ground and I’m going to capture so carbon capture from organic materials, not organic label materials, but but nature organic materials that go back into the soil, you know, is is a big deal. You also can try to figure out some kind of the, and they’re out there, but carbon credits thing, things where you can prove, you know, through arm’s length of third party materials that I am removing this carbon from my operation or I’m generating less carbon from my operation, I can get a carbon credit, which is $1 trade or do something with so that gives me an economic incentive to start trying to capture that carbon. Right. That has to go you can imagine is what we’ve been talking here all day, is we have to do that in consideration with increasing our yield, you know, yeah. As we increase our yields, gives us more opportunity to look at ways to sink carbon into our soils and our plants that can be beneficial to the environment.

Borna (ClimateAi) 45:09
Why aren’t these incentive structures being put in place today? Is there just not enough political will? Is there not enough pressure coming from from people from consumers? Like what? What’s holding it back?

Ed Schafer 45:19
The reality is we haven’t created a marketplace for the credits, you know, we can generate the credits, we can provide the credit, we can certify a credit, who’s buying them, you know, you got you have golf courses that are buying them so that they’re, they’re run off of, well, this is more nitrogen and phosphorus. But, you know, 50% of the nitrogen is airborne, and it falls in our trees in our lakes, and that falls in our golf courses and our lawns and is flushed down to the wastewater systems, you know, into, you know, into our water supply and, and we need to figure out ways to stop that. How do we remove nitrogen? How do we remove carbon? How do we remove phosphorus in here? arsenic, you know, how are we going to remove those things from our atmosphere? Well, you know, technology is going to do it, innovation is going to do it. But you know, there’s a place for government to supply incentives by being able to measure reductions, monetize them, and allow those incentives or the credits, you know, to be traded or use. And, you know, you go on the commodities market today in Chicago, you can buy carbon credits, but, you know, you can’t buy enough of them to do anything.

Borna (ClimateAi) 46:34
Yeah. And there’s no, there’s no need today, it’s not like you’re gonna be it’s not there’s like a cap and trade or a carbon tax that would incentivize this type of behavior, which is weird. To me, it seems like that should have happened a while ago, businesses can factor it into their decision making and adjust accordingly. And a lot of oil and gas companies are even in favor of it. They’re just like, yeah, we just want certainty and how to map things out moving forward. Give us the carbon tax, just tell us what it’s going to be before and,

Ed Schafer 46:57
I mean, that’s one of the difficult things with agar. Culture, because you don’t have a certainty in your production. So you know, if I’m a utility in Pennsylvania and I want to buy carbon credits, to offset the carbon, I’m filling into the air, I need a consistent supply those carbon credits. And if I have a bad crop year, if I’m buying them from the agriculture community, there’s a bad crop here, there’s disease or there’s who knows what world hunger, you know, the crops go elsewhere, I don’t get my carbon credits. So that’s one of the issues that we have to figure out is how to provide a consistent supply of those incentives to reduce the carbon.

Borna (ClimateAi) 47:37
I want to touch on one other point, kind of moving away from this discussion, but towards a very similar one, in terms of the technology that’s being implemented today, and will be implemented in the future to kind of help increase yields. So one way that we talked about increasing yields was through kind of modification of genetics or through breeding which is kind of a more, quote unquote, natural way. Do it. But there’s also technology. We can also use data. We can also use platforms management, remote sensing, to kind of track this, this kind of progress, learn more about the crop varieties, how they perform, and then how to optimize their conditions. But you brought up a really interesting point last time, when we were talking and you were mentioning that, yeah, we’re, we have all these technologies that people are building, we’re building the platforms, but we don’t have the data inputs to be putting in. Can you speak a little bit more about that? Like, how bad is that problem? And how do we correct it? And are we on the path to correcting it right now or no?

Ed Schafer 48:31
Yeah, I think what happened is, as we looked at data analysis, and data generation in agriculture field, you know, to increase yields, we started in the middle. And so we said, okay, let’s build this platform. Let’s gather this data. Let’s take this data and make it relevant to this field or this machine, you know, or whatever the case may be all that was great. But the problem that we found out over time, is that you didn’t have a good Good methods to generate the data. So you could take the data you have, but how do you generate it? So I can I can take soil samples, for instance, and find out what I have in my field, but they’re limited. It’s, you know, four corners of the field or five points on this acre, or whatever the case may be. I don’t, that’s not relevant to where there’s a hill on my field, or a valley or where I might get some runoff or I got a neighbor, you know, eroding, eroded, whatever the case may be. And so you don’t have today, the data generation capability for good precision farming, we have the ability to maneuver data for precision farming, but we’re not generating the data. So yes, there are a lot of things that are taking place. And one of the things for instance, is I mean, you know, things get crazy but you have a tethered drone, on your seed planter that is dragging A soil sampler in front of your tractor. So it’s getting on time direct, real soil conditions that you then can adjust your planting depth or distance seed, the seed, or whatever the case may be. So I get a better yield, we have to figure out ways like that, to be able to use precision agriculture in a proper way.

Borna (ClimateAi) 50:25
That’s next level, why does it have to be a drone? Why can’t it just be like something that’s sticking out in front of the front of the tractor?

Ed Schafer 50:31
It could be the The question is the lag time of gathering the data and getting it you know, into entered into your equipment. God you have out there a little farther, you have time to gather the data, manage it and stick it back into your inputs or whatever the case may be. So it’s a way I’m you know, I’m sure they’ll be wireless capability soon. The reason you attended the drone is just for power. So you want to get out there a little ahead of the other If you’re head of yourself, but there are, you know, lots of ways now the technology and machinery is unbelievable, that’s taking place. The technology of data management is really there, we’re working strongly on the data generation, which has a ways to go, but that gets put in place and then you know, then you start being able to individualize almost on a foot by foot basis in a field, you know, how you can do these crops if you you know, the the huge difference where you plant the depth of the seed, or the distance between two seeds. And the way those stocks or plants or stems come up in the field is huge. So you know, you’re looking at methods, which is another way that that you mentioned is the predictive method of what you’re going on in your, in your field. So you know if I can look and say, my weather in June 15 when I’m planning Apr is likely to be this way, I can change my cropping patterns to reflect that

Borna (ClimateAi) 52:06

Ed Schafer 52:11
Oh, you know, I, the reason I appreciate what you’re doing is I think you have a strong element. I mean, really to be able to look at and with a reasonable sense of accuracy, do a prediction of weather conditions in time forward, really allows you to make planting decisions and harvesting decisions that are going to totally improve the way that the way we generate our yields out there.

Borna (ClimateAi) 52:38
Yeah, definitely. And in all seriousness, when we were first starting off in agriculture, this was a serious problem that we were dealing with was the data inputs. And we had, you know, these AI computer vision algorithms that we had built. And we were going out to try to find people to help us kind of get our first few pilots and we were just finding that the data wasn’t there. And so we had to start looking for ways to kind of augment that The datasets that people were, were given us either through satellite imagery or just through kind of remote data sets, just because the initial step wasn’t really there. And now, now we’re trying to go the extra step. Okay, now that we’re a little bit farther along, how can we help you set up your climate strategy set up your data systems, so that we can build this relationship long term but but in the beginning, it was very difficult. We were we had developed tools that were going to be helpful, but we couldn’t find people who had high enough quality of data to allow it to work. So we really had to adjust and we’re kind of filling into our niche now and,

Ed Schafer 53:32
and look and look at the difference. What you’re doing is you’re, you know, in the past when people have tried to look at climate prediction, or weather prediction, all they did was build models of historical presence. So I, you know, I built in, you know, 100,000 data inputs from 200 years, and this is now I can predict what’s going to happen next June. When you guys are doing is Taking an adding the artificial intelligence piece to that, which is collecting not only one set of data in my in my management but several different data models for climate models, you’re able to take that and compare it to a specific location, it isn’t generalize Well, the weather is going to North Dakota, you know from the Farmers Almanac is going to be, you know, you’re looking at the ability to your algorithms to be able to grab data that is relevant to a specific place, and use that data to manage the cropping patterns under there. That’s a big change and a big advancement in the industry and something that I think is really important.

Borna (ClimateAi) 54:44
They want to crop out the last minute there and just turn that into a commercial for free. You’ve been super generous with your time here and I want to I want to let you go but before I do, I wanted to just ask you, in summary, what do you think we’ve got a lot of challenges facing us here. We have to Double our food supply by 2050. Despite climate change, what do you think are the critical puzzle pieces for us to get there?

Ed Schafer 55:07
First one is recognizing what we’ve got going on. So that’s the issue. We have to consider. How do we increase yields? Well, a lot of that’s going to be production agriculture. And how do we do that? And I don’t want to get we talked about not getting trapped in, you know, in certain segments, but, you know, the, I don’t want to get trapped in genetically modified issues, but we have to weigh we have to figure out ways to grow better yields, to use less inputs, there will be less costly methods out there. To do it. We have to figure out you know, so we lose so much we have so much perish in our productions once it’s harvested, you know, how can we store it better? How can we get it to market better? How can How can a consumer store it better, so that it stays there? You have to look at those issues. As I said, I think one of our very misunderstood situations is water. We have huge contaminated water in the world today. And we don’t deal much with it. And we’re going to have to get on top of water and to grow ways to clean it, keep it clean, to clean it after it’s trashed, you know, find out ways because you need good clean, solid water, you know, for those crops out there, and that water disappearing, and it’s disappearing fast. And I’m very concerned about that. And I don’t think we’re doing anything about it. So, you know, you have to look at the water system. So and then you really have to, you know, one of the big issues is we have to have government funding, the research. The very important research that goes into this isn’t going to happen by itself, by the way. Yeah, those are universities in our government labs and our things, you know, have to be focused on increasing yields. Not just necessarily more cash for the crop or whatever the case may be is, you know, it’s not only the economic metrics, but we have to look at an addition metrics here and what we’re doing it That’s an important piece of it. And then lastly, you have to generate the public opinion, we have to figure out how to make our citizens aware of this and get them to be supportive of the investments both in the private sector and the public sector that need to be made to increase our yields across the world.

Borna (ClimateAi) 57:19
Are you optimistic?

Ed Schafer 57:20
I am optimistic. I’m good. I love Rena, you can tell. Now, I think agriculture you mentioned earlier, you know, agriculture is is are the innovators out there. And that’s so true from day one and agriculture. The system has responded for better use of the land for better production for better nutrition. And I think you’re going to see the same if we focus on this, I have no doubt that we will develop equipment that works better, that we will develop seeds that produce more that we will develop harvesting methods that are going to be better. I just think you know We’re on the way now that we’re focusing on it. And in all honesty, it’s going to be the United States of America. And there’s going to be agriculture in the United States of America that solves the problem.

Borna (ClimateAi) 58:09
Love it. Yeah, I’m in the same boat. And how can people support what you’re doing now? I mean, you are still a pretty busy person. It was hard to pin you down for this interview. How can people support your worker or what you’re doing today?

Ed Schafer 58:22
I tried to retire twice. Me, I’ve got all the individual support I need with my family and my church and everything here. So I appreciate the question how to support me, but really how to support the system is to go out there to learn about it to to support our government efforts, and to respond to our private sector efforts in there. I think mostly what people can do today is try to understand the problem and generate the public conversation, and more importantly, the public will to make investment moments in technology and equipment and seeds to make this happen.

Borna (ClimateAi) 59:04
Truly humble and selfless. Thank you really appreciate this conversation and looking forward to talking to you soon before

Ed Schafer 59:11
we look forward to it.

Borna (ClimateAi) 59:14
Hey, everybody, thanks for listening if you have any feedback, or you’d like to add your own two cents on the topic discussed today, or if you’ve just got your own ideas about someone that we should discuss in the future, please feel free to shoot me an email at At its core, this podcast is just a way for us to learn and we want to share our learnings as we go. So we’re always open to building on these conversations and hearing new perspectives. Thanks for your support and see you next time.


Ed Schafer

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture & Governor of ND



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