Sustainability: long-term goal of new agriculture-conservation alliance

Articles
January 14, 2009

Sustainability: long-term goal of new agriculture-conservation alliance

The world’s food production will need to double to keep pace with population growth of 3 billion people between now and 2050, and this doubling must come without negative impact on the environment and society. So warn the founders of a novel group of experts from the worlds of food, agriculture and conservation, who have come together to help make this happen under the auspices of Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. This group of farmers, agribusiness, food companies, retailers and conservation groups will work to develop key sustainability outcomes and metrics, against which progress can be measured. The group’s first Environmental Resource Indicators Report, just issued, shows that agriculture production has been increasing efficiency over the past two decades. The initial index shows that soil-loss efficiency has risen by 30% to nearly 70% for the four crops evaluated—corn, soybean, cotton and wheat. Energy use per unit of output is down in corn, soybean, and cotton production by nearly 40% to more than 60%. Irrigated water use per unit of output has dropped 20% to nearly 50%, while carbon emissions per unit of output have dropped by about a third for these three crops.

The world’s food production will need to double to keep pace with population growth of 3 billion people between now and 2050, and this doubling must come without negative impact on the environment and society.

So warn the founders of a novel group of experts from the worlds of food, agriculture and conservation, who have come together to help make this happen under the auspices of Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.

This group of farmers, agribusiness, food companies, retailers and conservation groups will work to develop key sustainability outcomes and metrics, against which progress can be measured.

The group’s first Environmental Resource Indicators Report, just issued, shows that agriculture production has been increasing efficiency over the past two decades. The initial index shows that soil-loss efficiency has risen by 30% to nearly 70% for the four crops evaluated—corn, soybean, cotton and wheat. Energy use per unit of output is down in corn, soybean, and cotton production by nearly 40% to more than 60%. Irrigated water use per unit of output has dropped 20% to nearly 50%, while carbon emissions per unit of output have dropped by about a third for these three crops.

The report assessed national-scale metrics over this period for land, water and energy use; soil loss; and climate impact in corn, soy, cotton and wheat production. These crops comprised nearly 70% of the 305 million acres of U.S. cropland in 2007.

“These metrics will be expanded to define other attributes of sustainable agricultural production and lay the foundation for studies that will analyze additional environmental, socio-economic and health factors,” says Michael Reuter, director of conservation programs for the Central US Region of The Nature Conservancy, one of the steering committee members.

To illustrate the sustainability challenge further, the report notes that:
•    Agriculture is already the predominant user of all habitable land and 70% of fresh water.
•    By 2030, grain-producing land per capita will drop to just a third of what it was in 1950.
•    In just a decade, we will need 17% more water than is available to feed the world, predicts the World Water Council.

"Increased productivity and improved natural resource management will be vitally important as we seek to feed, fuel and clothe our growing world population on the same amount or even less land in the decades ahead," says Kevin Rogers, cotton grower from Arizona. "The best opportunity to achieve this goal is for all groups in the chain to work collaboratively.”

The Field to Market group wants best practices to help farmers drive future improvements, and is developing an online calculator to help individual growers assess their operations efficiency. Also, cataloging advice from experts and other growers will help advance future sustainability efforts.

"Increasingly we're hearing from our consumers who want to make sustainable food and fiber choices," says John Wolf, vice president of ingredients, commodities and risk management at Kellogg Company. "It's important consumers understand the progress already being made while recognizing that bringing the entire supply chain together is critical to continue making advances from the farm fields to the supermarket shelves."