“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.

Twenty years ago, the 1990 Farm Bill defined sustainable agriculture as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that is site-specific and will achieve the following:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources, and integrate, when appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

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.

Many times, agricultural producers can agree on most of the economic and environmental aspects of sustainability, but struggle much more on the social aspects, due to the fact that many of the social aspects are not based on science and economic research, but rather on concepts, opinions, business strategies and personal preferences. Some social examples related to production agriculture include small farms vs. large farms, organic farms vs. traditional farms, range-fed beef vs. feedlot beef, etc. Many of these farming and ranching practices have definition problems of their own. For example, naturally grown, which often used in promotion of food products, can have a lot of different meanings to producers and consumers.

The use of genetically modified (GMO) seed for crop production has been quite controversial in many foreign countries, as well as in some parts of the U.S., and with some organizations in the U.S. Many groups and individuals question whether or not GMO produced crops should be part of long-range agriculture sustainability. However, the primary benefit of using GMO seed is to control weeds and insects that damage crops, with less dependence on herbicides and insecticides that increase crop production costs, and potentially cause more threats to the environment and human health. The use of farm chemicals in the U.S. actually peaked in 1973, and has declined significantly in the past two decades. Producing food more economically, in a more environmentally friendly manner, would seem to meet a lot of definitions of agriculture sustainability.

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%.

A recent survey of U.S. soybean producers found that a large majority of producers identified with agricultural sustainability, and indicated a willingness to consider changes in their farming practices in order to make their farm more sustainable. Sixty-four percent of the producers indicated that they have already made some changes in production practices in recent years that are more sustainable. Over 80% of the producers surveyed feel that enhancing sustainability practices make them betterstewards of the land as well as improving their bottom line economically. Also, 82% of the producers in the survey feel a commitment to help feed the starving populations around the globe.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), representing 30 countries including the U.S., met recently to discuss and analyze sustainable agriculture for the future. One of the many groups that they heard from was the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), which claims to represent 600 million farm families and 120 different organizations in 79 different countries. The IFAP emphasized that farming must be profitable, in order to achieve long-term sustainability. The IFAP identified the following concerns regarding some of the current trends, as they relate to agriculture sustainability:

  • Rapid loss of productive farmland due to urban sprawl in some countries, including the U.S.
  • Growing tendency of some governments to take production agriculture for granted, without paying attention to the adverse affects of structural changes in the agriculture industry.
  • Mandating agriculture practices, or banning other practices, without adequate research and education regarding the economic impacts of those decisions.
  • Growing clout of large, multi-national food processors and retailers to dictate farming practices without regards to farm profitability or sustainability.

The bottom line is that we need to produce a lot more food in the future to feed the world. The global population is expected to grow by over 2 billion people in the next 40 years, and it is estimated that we will have that we will have to double today’s production levels to adequately feed the world population in 2050. To meet these needs, it will become critically important for agricultural producers, businesses, organizations and political leaders in the U.S., and around the world, to reach consensus on what characterizes sustainable farming practices. As the social aspects of agriculture production gain increasing emphasis, we must be careful not to compromise the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture, or our ability to provide a safe and adequate food supply.

Editor’s note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com.