Ag efficiency shows strong gains as future need poses challenges

It's not news to anyone in farming that crop production has become several orders of magnitude more efficient over the last quarter century, with a vastly reduced impact on the environment.

It is news, though, when a diverse alliance of environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy and major corporate entities such as Coca-Cola, Kellogg, and Mars agree.

A landmark study, “Field to Market,” conducted by the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture and released at the annual meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, was backed by two dozen-plus organizations and corporations.

The report evaluated national scale data over the past 20 years for land, water, and energy use, soil loss, and the impact of climate on corn, soybeans, cotton, and wheat production — crops that in 2007 comprised 70 percent of the 305 million acres of U.S. cropland.

In the past 20 years, the report notes, soil loss efficiency trends have improved from 30 percent to almost 70 percent for the four crops evaluated; energy use per unit of output is down in corn, soybeans, and cotton from 40 percent to more than 60 percent; irrigated water use per unit has decreased from 20 percent to nearly 50 percent; and carbon emissions per unit have dropped by about a third for corn, soybeans, and cotton.

As a burgeoning world population pushes demand for food and fiber ever upward and pressures of natural resources increase, the Alliance views this report as the first step in a long term effort to quantify and improve the environmental, socio-economic, and health impacts of agricultural production.

Analysts project that the world population could increase by 3 billion by 2050, requiring a doubling of current food production levels. That is itself challenge enough, but doubly so when considering the potential environmental ramifications of such an increase.

Agriculture, the study notes, is already the predominant user of habitable land and it uses 70 percent of fresh water. Projections are that by 2030, the amount of land available per capita for grain production will be only a third of what it was in 1950 and that 17 percent more water will be needed for crop production than is available.

“Increased productivity and improved natural resource management will be vitally important as we seek to feed, fuel, and clothe a growing population on the same amount, or less, land,” says cotton grower Kevin Rogers. “The best opportunity to achieve this goal will be for all groups in the chain to work collaboratively, and participation by farmers and conservation organizations will be vitally important to success.”

The “Field to Market” program seeks to work with farmers to identify and crate best practices that can drive future improvements. The Alliance is beginning an industry-wide dialogue that can lead to programs for continued improvement economically- and environmentally-friendly food and fiber production.

John Wolf, a Kellogg Company vice president, notes that consumers “want to make sustainable food and fiber choices, and it's important that they understand the progress already being made” by U.S. agriculture.

(Read the entire report at

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