March 2011
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Coming to Grips With ‘Sustainability’

Keystone Center offers farmers a tool to assess their production practices

Mention the word "sustainability" in almost any gathering of farmers and the first comment you’re likely to hear will be a question asking, "How do you define that?"

The Keystone Center’s Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is quick to provide an answer.

In its Field to Market program, the Alliance also offers producers an online tool to determine how they compare with other farmers when it comes to soil, land, water and energy use, as well as climate impact. More on that later.

The Field to Market effort is led by a blue-ribbon group of producers, agribusinesses, food and retail companies, and conservation organizations. Among other things, the program’s focus is on defining and measuring the sustainability of food and fiber production, and the environmental and socioeconomic impact agriculture has.

Field to Market is one of the most recent programs launched by the Colorado-based Keystone Center, a non-profit organization seeking to address today’s most challenging environmental, energy and public health issues. It does so by bringing together leaders from the public, private and civic sectors, and working to equip the next generation with the intellectual and social skills needed to tackle the questions they will face.

As far as sustainability is concerned, the Alliance’s definition is short and direct – "meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

 

Sarah Alexander is director of environ-ment practice for the Keystone Center.

The challenge explicit in that definition involves some key objectives, including:

• Increasing productivity to meet future food and fiber demands.

• Decreasing adverse impacts on the environment.

• Improving human health.

• Improving the social and economic well-being of agricultural communities.

Field to Market recognizes that success in meeting the objectives is by no means automatic, especially when there are potential conflicts between them. For example, while conservation efforts are widely recognized as playing a key role in agricultural sustainability, how does the impact of removing land from production under the federal Conservation Reserve Program square with improving the social and economic well-being of rural communities?

Sarah Alexander, Keystone Center’s director of environment practice, concedes the Field to Market program doesn’t yet have all the questions answered and much work still remains. But it’s also clear sustainability questions aren’t going to disappear. The fact that Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer and one of the largest corporations in the world, and dozens of other household names from American and international business are driving the development of sustainability standards through the Sustainability Consortium underscores that the concept is here to stay.

The Consortium describes itself as "an independent organization of diverse global participants who work collaboratively to build a scientific foundation driving innovation to improve consumer product sustainability through all stages of a product’s life cycle."

So, what’s an individual producer to do? Most everyone agrees that farmers historically have worked hard to be good stewards of the land. However, dealing with sustainability presents a host of new challenges, especially when there are no agreed-upon benchmark measurements on what’s sustainable and what isn’t.

That’s where Field to Market’s free, confidential, online tool comes into play. Known as the Fieldprint Calculator, it helps farmers evaluate their natural resource use and key crop production inputs, compared with national and state averages. Results from using the calculator can help improve production efficiencies and profit potential while enabling growers to more easily see how their choices affect natural resources, production levels and ultimately their operating efficiency.

According to a Field to Market environmental indicator report, corn production efficiency has made some significant gains in the 1987-2007 study period, but further improvements will be needed to feed a growing world population with more money to spend on food. (Photo: CaseIH)

 

Explaining why he uses the calculator, a corn, soybean and wheat producer said, "Sustainable agriculture must make sense economically, as well as environmentally, or it’s not sustainable."

The calculator "will help me understand how we’re being sustainable on the farm today, while providing insight on future improvements that can benefit the environment and my bottom line," he added.

The calculator was developed with input from a diverse group of grower organizations, economists, conservation groups, agribusinesses and food companies. Feedback from producers using the tool now drives ongoing efforts to refine and expand its applications. Future versions may include additional crops (now limited to corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton) and indicators dealing with water quality, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and economic and social matters.

Animal agriculture also was not included in the calculator’s original design, but Alexander expects more work to be done in this area in the future.

Available at www.fieldtomarket.org, the calculator currently is organized in five resource modules involving land use, soil loss, irrigation water use, energy use and climate impact (greenhouse gas emissions). Farmers are asked to enter relevant data describing their operation, production practices and yields. Based on the information entered, the system computes a "spidergram," a graphic representation of how the grower compares with others on a national or state level in each of the resource areas.

Field to Market emphasizes in an earlier report that production agriculture has become increasingly efficient in recent years. But, with world population expected to be nine billion by 2050 and with the demand for food and fiber growing due to those gains and increases in disposable income, even greater production efficiencies will be needed, Alexander told a recent meeting of producers and agribusiness leaders.

That need is emphasized by the fact available natural resources are shrinking. By 2030, grain-producing land per capita worldwide is expected to drop to just a third of what it was in 1950, she said, while in just 10 years, water need will be 17 percent higher than what’s available.

A partial list of entities supporting the Field to Market effort includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cotton Council of America, National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Bunge, Cargill, General Mills, Kellogg Co., Monsanto, John Deere, Coca Cola Co., Fertilizer Institute and Irrigation Association.