By almost any measure, agriculture keeps doing a better job of protecting our national resources. We’ve reduced soil erosion and energy use dramatically. Per-acre fertilizer rates for major crops have remained constant or declined over the last couple of decades. Because of biotechnology, we cut pesticide applications by almost 70 million pounds in 2005 and at the same time increased crop yields by more than 8 billion pounds.
This is a story of continuing improvement and ongoing success.
So why don’t farmers have a better reputation as environmental stewards? Perhaps it’s because agriculture likes to measure its ecological footprint with quantifiable terms such as parts per million or pounds per acre.
“Being green,” however, is often more about emotion than science. As Kermit observes, “People tend to pass you over ‘cause you’re not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky.”
Sometimes the stances of the environmental movement actually contradict good ecological policy. Consider biotechnology. GMO crops allow farmers to produce more crops while using fewer pesticides. They also help combat greenhouse gases because we generate more crops for every gallon of fuel we burn. Yet most environmental groups crusade against genetic enhancement.
They seem to prefer more primitive methods of agriculture that are in fact detrimental to the environment. The organic food industry has done an excellent job of developing a market for its products. Consumers have a right to purchase and eat whatever foods they want, for whatever reason. There’s little evidence to suggest that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than conventional kinds, but if people want them, farmers will produce them,
Yet we’re fooling ourselves if we think that organic food is a sustainable alternative to modern agriculture. It takes a lot more land to produce the same amount of organic food. If the demand for these products were to increase significantly, it would mean removing countless numbers of acres from conservation and putting them into agricultural production. Soil erosion and energy consumption would increase as well because organic crops can’t control weeds with the most advanced forms of herbicide. Finally, the inefficiencies of organic production would result in higher food prices–exacerbating a problem that we’re seeing right now, and which is leading to political unrest in certain parts of the world.
The public would gain a better understanding of these issues if it knew how to weigh them. A new project by the Keystone Center could help. The Colorado-based group is trying to develop a sustainability index to measure the environmental effects of corn, cotton, wheat, and soybean farming. It will look at agriculture’s impact on five main areas: land, soil, water, energy, and climate.
Farmers will be able to take advantage of a web tool that will help them to examine their own sustainability practices and compare their results with national averages. They’ll also have access to ideas on how to improve what they’re doing.
The index should be available by the end of summer and the online tool by this fall.
If it’s based on science rather than emotion, the Keystone Center’s project will help the public see that agriculture isn’t the sworn enemy of ecology and conservation. This unique partnership project might even encourage more people in the environmental movement to gain a new appreciation for farmers and the tools they are using, as well. At the very least, perhaps it will help farmers step out of the defense crouch that we often assume when the subject of environmentalism comes up.
In his song, Kermit ultimately decides that green is good: It’s the color of spring, big like a mountain, important like a river, and so on.
I’m looking forward to the day when more people appreciate that modern agriculture is a shade of green, too.
John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). A longer version of this editorial was first published in CropLife March 2008.