Evaluation of Ag Sustainability
Global food production must double by 2050 to feed a population of 9 billion. Billions of research dollars are pouring into determining how to accomplish this incredible feat, but speculation exists whether it can be done sustainably. Amplifying the current production model is not realistic, because inputs like additional land are not available and synthetic fertilizer no longer yields equivalent return. (Exhibit 1). The UK Foresight Global Food and Farming Project, which studied the challenges for sustainable global agriculture, called for a “radical redesign of the global food system” and concluded cooperation across segments was going to be critical. The vulnerabilities associated with the current profit-guided, production system are staggering.
· Overabundance of cheap, nutrient-void, high caloric foods
· Wasted food accounts for 50% of U.S. production
· 2 billion hungry or “hidden hungry” people partially due to imbalanced trade and in ability to compete
· Industrial agriculture is the largest greenhouse gas emitter
(N. Pelletier, 2008)
· “Superbugs” resistant to commercial pesticides threaten crops
· High nitrate levels (a known carcinogen) in processed meat, produce and groundwater
(Sait, Nitrates and Your Health)
How did we get here? The “Green Revolution” brought about exponential agriculture production growth. As production increased in the 70’s, along with the temptation to skirt commonly accepted land conservation practices, the U.S. government dismantled farm land policies designed to promote responsible agriculture practices. This marked the start of consistently low prices. In response, producers focused on increasing efficiency, mono-cropping became common, and the land was slowly exhausted of nutrients, while the government incented overproduction, a practice the U.S. continues today despite strong farm returns. Worldwide, producers pump as much as they can into their crop to compete, and after forty years, soil degradation has become a serious problem. (Exhibit 2) The system cannot be sustained.
Figure 1: Algae bloom in the Lake Erie Western basin resulting from high levels of phosphorus leaching from agricultural land and urban sewer overflows.
(Freeland, 2011) - See Textless Thursday below.
It’s easy to understand why agriculture is facing scrutiny. NGO rhetoric has commonly targeted animal welfare and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with emotional pleas to sway consumer opinion, and though largely discredited, they have definitely awakened consumers to consider food sources. More than ever, consumers are concerned with food safety and health, while animal welfare, GMO’s and the environment are also important.
(Ipsos, 2012) The industry has been focused primarily on compliance or at best, managing the issues. But a growing group of producers are treating issues these as opportunities to improve their farm’s biological foundation. Regulations may never come to pass, but one only needs to look to animal welfare to see expectations have shifted. Consumers care about how their food was produced, in addition cost (out of scope but not to be ignored), safety and nutrition.
Critical to the ‘how’ is soil health. Generally, overuse of synthetic fertilizers has resulted in excess nitrates in the environment, while pesticides have stripped agricultural land of both bad and good organisms, which support plant-life. The result is poor or “dead” soil, unable to transfer many necessary nutrients, thus requiring constant fertilization, like an addiction. These conditions also lead to faster erosion and leaching, threatening sustainable producer and freshwater sources.
Producer awareness of soil degradation is increasing, and experts are challenging the sustainability of accepted practices. Some producers are strategically managing these issues, proving agriculture can still create true, triple bottom line value. Indeed, if the food system is to be radically redesigned though, more farmers will need to consider their long-term impact and invest in improving soil health for healthier food in the future.
Farmers are no strangers to sustainable agriculture. They have long prided themselves on being stewards of the land. In Ontario, 70% of farmers have completed an Environmental Farm Plan and with challenging climate conditions and fragile topsoil, prairie farmers are conservation tillage leaders. Producers appreciate the complexity of growing a crop and the importance of preserving resources. No soil, means no crop and no crop means not only no profit, but no food.
Producers have recognized the importance of bridging the food and farming gap, seeking opportunities to dialogue with and educate consumers, even coining the term “agvocate”. Inevitably, hard questions arise and producers should pay close attention to these questions. Consumers, primarily concerned with food safety and health
(Ipsos, 2012), have some underlying questions about conventional agriculture and its impact on these factors. The connection has been made between modern agriculture, food nitrate levels, and cancer. Some will claim its inconclusive, but organic market growth clearly signals consumers’ uncertainty. The industry has a predictable surprise (Exhibit 4) on its hands of dire proportions.
“In the early days we fed the soil, and now with the advent of fertilizer we have started feeding the plants directly.” Cornell University soil scientist, Harold Van Es clearly suggests returning focus to the soil. If soil is biologically healthy, it is able to transport nutrients, prevent disease and encourage root growth. Though organic production is one mean to improve soil health, there are many practices conventional producers can implement, which will significantly improve organic matter, balance soil nutrients, reduce erosion, thereby reducing negative human and environmental effects.
Organic agriculture does have the fastest, most dramatic impact on improving soils while maintaining yield potential with fewer resources. In fact, with proper intensification, organic agriculture could produce enough food to sustain the global population, without excess land or organic fertilizer as critics often suggest.
(C Badgley, 2006) In the initial years, the largest producer cost is reduced yields as the fields are converted to organic production. For a producer managing soil health already, the cost will be less and over time, organic yields are nearly equivalent to conventional agriculture – as high as 90%. (N. Pelletier, 2008) In fact, some producers who are utilizing “biologically-sound” practices are able to avoid certification’s regulatory headache, because their yields are high enough to forego the organic premium. (Dybiec, 2013)
Nonetheless, producers do not need to make the leap to organic to begin improving triple bottom line. Soil management practices like reduced and no-tillage, incorporating ‘green manure’ and legumes into crop rotations, and adding livestock manure can also have immediate, positive improvement. The financial payback on these practices is also easily quantified. For example, every acre rotated with a red clover cover crop nets a synthetic fertilizer savings of approximately $15-20. (Exhibit 5)
Though the genetics offered by seed companies are out of producers’ control, producers do exact some influence over varieties by what they purchase. For example, increased demand for cover crop varieties may encourage further evaluation of short growing season varieties, a gap which currently exists in the marketplace and should be considered by crop-chem.
(Christie, 2013) This will be critical for successful cover crop integration into more Canadian field rotations. For seed companies, there are also clear benefits to improving soil health; the variability of field trials required to bring new seeds to market makes for a long and costly process. Healthier soil conditions may in fact minimize variability and cost, creating more reliable data for new genetics.
 Topsoil is the top layer of the earth’s surface, approximately 6” deep, and required to sustain most plant life. Wind and precipitation naturally erode soil, but it is recreated at an equivalent rate. Agriculture, forestry and urban development increase the rate of erosion beyond the earth’s natural replenishment rate.
 Leaching (agriculture): the loss of water-soluble plant nutrients from the soil (Wikipedia, 2013)
 The Green Revolution occurred from 1940 to the late 1970’s when research and development poured into increasing worldwide agriculture production with new, high-yielding crop varieties, hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Norman Borlaug is considered the “Father of the Green Revolution”, and he is credited with saving millions from starvation, earning himself the first Nobel Peace Prize in agriculture.
 Monocropping is the practice of growing the same crop on a field year after year without rotating. It is a common farming practice with corn, wheat and soybeans.
 During the Nixon administration, spurred by the belief small, inefficient farmers caused U.S. grain to be expensive on the world market, farmers were encouraged to ‘get big or get out”. After the Great Russian Grain Robbery in 1971, when Russia secretly negotiated the purchase of 2/3 of U.S. grain stocks, domestic shortages caused food prices to spike, leading to a new era of farming as much as possible with all the resources possible.
 12 million tonnes of topsoil erode annually, the equivalent which could produce 20 million tonnes of grain.
 Triple bottom line is the measurement of business success on profit, ecological and social factors, not only profit.
 Due to the volatility of commodity prices and the large, up-front investment required in production agriculture, producers will often use a variety of tools to manage their risk, including forward contracts, crop insurance and government support programs.