Barry McNamara  |  Published September 13, 2023

Agriculture in the Spotlight

During her Wiswell-Robeson Lecture, Lauren Lurkins says ag is ‘central and integral’ to solutions that society seeks to environmental challenges.

LAUREN LURKINS: The former director of environmental policy for the Illinois Farm Bureau gave Mon... LAUREN LURKINS: The former director of environmental policy for the Illinois Farm Bureau gave Monmouth College's annual Wiswell-Robeson Lecture on Sept. 11.MONMOUTH, Ill. – During the latter portion of her Wiswell-Robeson Lecture at Monmouth College on Sept. 11, environmental and agricultural public policy consultant Lauren Lurkins shared a glimpse with members of the agriculture community of four major issues on the horizon.

Those issues were the answer to the subtitle of her talk, “The New Defense of Farmers: Why Farmers Should Be Actively Engaged in Environmental Policy Issues.” Lurkins, who earlier this year began her consulting firm Lurkins Strategies, served the prior decade as the director of environmental policy at the Illinois Farm Bureau.

When heard in succession, she said, those four issues can have an overwhelming effect on farmers.

“They’re in a complex environment that we’ve created with all these layers of law,” said Lurkins, who holds a law degree from Southern Illinois University. “But I think that never before has agriculture been so central and integral to the solutions that our society is searching for – for the climate, for water.”

“I think that never before has agriculture been so central and integral to the solutions that our society is searching for – for the climate, for water.” Lauren Lurkins


Lurkins, who spent the first seven years of her career in a law firm, offered her counsel to farmers.

“I think your best defense is to get engaged,” she said. “If you choose to do nothing, you’re going to regret it. Take time to get educated on these issues and continue to keep up with them. … Be open to new technology, new ideas, new partners. The best defense I can give to you is to be your own advocate.”


Environmental justice

“The first issue, environmental justice, is not a new issue,” said Lurkins. “It’s the idea that all people – regardless of where they live, what color your skin is, how much money you have – have the right to clean air, clean water and clean land.”

But she said that seemingly simple idea is far easier said than done.

“It ends up being a concept that can be a little bit challenging depending on how it manifests itself in regulation and legislation,” said Lurkins. “It could be something that impacts agriculture in a lot of ways,” including farmers experiencing a more extensive application process through organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency.


Drowning in data

Lurkins said a second issue that farmers are already facing is how to navigate new technology – some that has already arrived and some that will surely follow in the near future.

“They’re always looking at ways that we can use technology to have better impact on the environment, to keep workers safer, to have less air emissions, to clean up the water, to use fertilizer in a more efficient manner,” said Lurkins, who referenced a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “America’s Farmers Are Bogged Down by Data.”

“We have all this fantastic tech, but most of the farmers who have the ability to access it are having trouble keeping up with where it’s headed.” Lauren Lurkins


“The point was, we have all this fantastic tech,” she said, “but most of the farmers who have the ability to access it are having trouble keeping up with where it’s headed. No one had an answer in this article about what to do with farmers and their need to better understand the advantage of technology.”


ESG and GHG

Lurkins said that another issue farmers are facing is ESG, which stands for environmental, social and governance. Investors are increasingly applying these non-financial factors as part of their analysis to identify material risks and growth opportunities.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations around this at the state level,” she said. “We’re talking about it from the perspective of investors, environmental groups and consumers all wanting to know what the publicly traded companies, or in some cases private companies, are doing to benefit the environment, and also social and governance issues. I’m going to be focused on the environment for the most part, but it is a massive effort.”

FORMER LAWYER'S ADVICE: Lurkins told the farmers in attendance at the Wiswell-Robeson Lecture... FORMER LAWYER'S ADVICE: Lurkins told the farmers in attendance at the Wiswell-Robeson Lecture that their best defense is to get engaged with the many environmental issues.Lurkins pointed to Europe, where, by 2024, many of the large publicly traded companies there must have greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reports in their files.

“There’s also been proposals here in the United States, through the Security Exchange Commission, to require publicly traded companies to report their GHG emissions from beginning to end, including what we call ‘Scope 3’ emissions, which would include data at the farm gate,” said Lurkins. “When we talk about emissions, we talk about what is the impact on air quality and on GHG emissions and carbon from growing corn, from soybeans, from your livestock, and people wanting to gather the data on that for purposes of corporate reports that are not tied to the farm. So there’s a lot of concern about that.”


Sustainable aviation fuel

The fourth topic that Lurkins addressed was what she called the “controversial” issue of fuels.

“I’m interested in the nudges from our federal government as they start to think about the future of things like ethanol and biofuels,” she said.

“I think your best defense is to get engaged. If you choose to do nothing, you’re going to regret it. Take time to get educated on these issues and continue to keep up with them.” Lauren Lurkins

A related item to consider, she said, is “the Biden Administration has set a goal of producing three billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel in the U.S. by 2030.”

“How it ties back to conservation on the farm is that for you, for all these ethanol plants to get the true credit, they really need crops that are grown using ‘climate-smart’ practices,” said Lurkins. “We would expect these rules to come out this fall (and) farmers need to be aware of what’s happening in those conversations.”

The Wiswell-Robeson Lecture was founded in 2016 through a gift from 1960 Monmouth graduate Jeanne Gittings Robeson of Monmouth. Robeson and her late husband, Don Robeson, who was a 1954 Monmouth graduate, operated their farm in Warren County.

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