Defining Sustainable Agriculture
May 4, 2010 10:00 AM, By Kent Thiesse
Corn and Soybean Digest
“Sustainable agriculture” is a phrase that has been around for decades; however, it has recently been receiving increased emphasis by businesses, organizations and political leaders. USDA’s Ag Outlook Conference a couple months ago focused on sustainable agriculture, as did the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council annual meeting in October 2009. If you ask 100 people to define sustainable agriculture, you will likely get 100 different responses. Every person, business and organization seems to have its own definition of sustainability,as it relates to agriculture.
A more recent definition of sustainability is meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. That definition is quite complex, and can have a wide-range of interpretations. Most university experts and business leaders see sustainable agriculture as being sustainable environmentally, economically and socially. The environmental and economic aspects of sustainability have been around for decades, even centuries, in agriculture. The social aspect of sustainability is a newer concept that is gaining more and more focus in many developed countries in the world, including the U.S.
As mentioned earlier, the concept of sustainable agriculture has existed for decades, and has been emphasized in farm bills as well as other federal and state legislation. Consider some of the agricultural facts and improvements from the past few decades that are related to economic, environmental and social achievements:
· Farmers today grow five times as much corn on 20% less land than they did in 1930.
· In 1940, one U.S. farmer produced enough food and fiber for 19 people, compared to production for 155 people today.
· From 1987 to 2007, average corn productivity increased by over 40%, and has increased at even more rapid pace in recent years.
· Corn producers grow 70% more corn/pound of fertilizer than they did in the 1970s.
· Reduced tillage and improved farm management practices have reduced soil erosion by about 43% in the last twenty years, while soil lost per bushel of corn produced has dropped by 69% during that same period of time.
· Carbon emissions per unit of output in crop production have dropped by one-third in the past 20 years, while energy used per unit of crop production has decreased by 60%. Read More
One of the frustrating things I hear being said about agriculture today is that farmers and ranchers need to change in order to be sustainable. There is this mentality being perpetuated by the likes of Michael Pollan and others that current farms and ranches, most of which are several generations old, aren’t sustainable. Not only is this not correct, but it’s also insulting. No one knows more about sustainability than those in agriculture. Not only do we set yearly goals, but I have never met a farmer or rancher that didn’t hope to be able to pass their business on to the next generation. So for those who want to claim ag needs to start being sustainable, well, they are late to a party that started many generations ago. ~Troy