A new report released by Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, demonstrates how corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, rice and potatoes are being produced more efficiently in the US than they were 30 years ago, accompanied by important improvements in farm safety and economic sustainability for producers. At the same time, increased production to meet growing demand has also resulted in greater overall resource use by many crops.
Stewart Ramsey, principal and senior economist at IHS Global Insight, which conducted the analyses for the report, notes, "Sustainability for agriculture is a complex, multidimensional topic; the intent of this report is to bring together best available data and science to inform the conversation and provide a picture of U.S. agriculture's sustainability changes over the past three decades."
Developed by a diverse group of stakeholders, the report analyzes national-scale trends in environmental and socioeconomic progress over time. The analyses rely on publicly available data to estimate performance on 11 agricultural sustainability indicators ranging from soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions to labor hours and debt-to-asset ratios. The trends provide broad context, enable informed discussions of priorities for more localized efforts, and create a baseline against which to monitor future change.
Fred Luckey, chairman of Field to Market, describes the report as "an innovative, scientific, and collaborative way to define and measure outcomes for sustainable agriculture. The report reflects significant progress as well as continued opportunities for improvement in the face of real sustainability challenges."
"Farmers have a great story to tell about improving conservation on their lands. We still have a lot of work ahead to meet the dual needs of production and sustainability. The way to get there is through partnerships like Field to Market and using better science and better tools to make documentable improvements in the footprint of commodity production," explained Suzy Friedman, deputy director, working lands at Environmental Defense Fund.
The report finds that, over the study period, all six crops demonstrated progress in improving resource use/impact per unit of production on all five environmental indicators (land use, soil erosion, irrigation water use, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions); for example, soil erosion per unit of production has improved by 47% to 67%, and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production have decreased between 15% and more than 42% for all crops. Improvements in efficiency were driven, at least in part, by improvements in yield for all crops, ranging from 25% to 64%. Due in part to overall increases in production for five of the six crops (excluding wheat) and increases in total land use for four of the six crops (excluding potatoes and wheat), total resource use/impact increased for many crops on many indicators. Per acre resource use/impact was more variable across crops.
"Producer involvement is key in developing sustainable agriculture metrics that resonate with all levels of the supply chain. This report takes a look at the sustainability story growers have to tell from inside the farm gate, where all food production starts," explained Bob Young, Chief Economist & Director, Budget and Economic Analysis, American Farm Bureau Federation.
For socioeconomic indicators, the indicators for debt to asset ratio, fatalities, and non-fatality injury decreased (improved) over their respective time periods and farm classification. Returns over variable costs have been inconsistent over the indicator's respective time period, but have been increasing for all crops, excluding cotton, since approximately 2002, and for cotton since 2009. Labor hours have decreased for all crops per unit of production and, excluding wheat, per planted acre. Overall, the agricultural sector's contribution to national GDP has increased over the explored time period in absolute terms but decreased as a share of total.
"Agriculture plays an important role in helping America achieve meaningful environmental and sustainability gains," said Steve Peterson, sourcing director, General Mills. "With the growing demand for increased food production, there is no better option than to do so safely – sustaining our planet's land, water and natural resources for future generations. We have a long history of working closely with farmers to promote sustainable agriculture. The latest trends report demonstrates progress that aids our sustainability efforts throughout the supply chain."
Read the full report here.