By now, pretty much everyone has heard or read that Earth’s population is projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030. But says Bruce Knight, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, “As an agriculturist focused on sustainability, the number I focus on 4.89 billion — the number of people projected to move into the middle class by 2030.
“That’s where the true challenge of sustainability lies: How do we provide a 5 billion person middle class with the ability to eat, drink, and live the way you and I do? What’s going to be the impact when they move up the food chain and want more milk, more meat, more protein?”
It represents “a tremendous opportunity” for agriculture, and “a tremendous challenge as well,” he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University.
Knight, a third generation South Dakota farmer/rancher who says he went to Washington in 1985 on an internship “and I’ve been there ever since,” served as chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service from 2002-2006 before serving in the under secretary post through 2009.
He then founded Strategic Conservation Solutions, which helps clients “navigate the maze of federal policy and regulatory processes” in Congress, the executive branch, and other government agencies. “We specialize in sustainability in conservation policy and parameters,” he says. “A lot of folks make conservation and sustainability really, really complicated. We try to simplify it.”
The issue of sustainability, Knight says, has led to “a lot of academic discussion about sustainable intensification, as applied to less-developed nations: How do we put seed technology, fertilizer technology, and other modern farming tools in their hands?
“This is very common in United Nations development circles. But I want to make sure that sustainable intensification applies to the U.S. as well — that we think about how do we maximize production on the very best land in the most responsible way we possibly can? This is next progressive step for most of us in agriculture.
“When my father came home from World War II, we were still farming with horses. One farmer fed 19 people; today, it’s 155. Whether it’s corn, soybeans, hay, wheat, grain sorghum, cotton, or rice, we’ve seen that same power of productivity gain.
INCHES VS. ACRES
“Our first generation of advancements were all genetic, mechanical, and labor. But the next generation — the one all of us farming now are going through — is all about inches versus acres, about maximizing water use efficiency, maximizing field use, nutrients, sunlight, and space.”
Sustainable intensification is important, Knight says, “when we look to 2030 and beyond. Many look at it with the attitude, ‘This is something somebody is going to do to me, and I’m not going to be paid for it.’ But others look at it from the standpoint of greater efficiency, return on investment, and cost savings.”
He quotes former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman: The world’s farmers, ranchers, and fishers will be expected to produce more food in the next 40 years than they have in the last 8,000 years combined. “That’s a startling thought!” Knight says. “From the time of Abraham’s sheep and lambs all the way to today, we’ve got to produce more food than all of our predecessors combined.”
Knight says his definition of sustainability is simple: “Can I provide income for my family? Are my cattle well-fed and cared for? Are the land, water, air, and grass in better shape than when I bought the farm?”
Sustainability today “is still in the eye of the beholder,” he says, “and those in agriculture who choose to be involved can heavily influence what it is going to be.”
PILLARS OF SUSTAINABILITY
There are three common pillars of sustainability, he says — economic, environmental, and social. “You economists own the first pillar. The environmental activists and non-governmental organizations aren’t owning it, which means all too often things like return on investment and efficiency aren’t a part of the sustainability dialogue, and we aren’t getting an economic balance in those objectives.”
Proximity to consumers quite often influences demand signals, Knight says, citing wine and dairy as two “ambitious” sectors. “With dairy, for example, many consumers are making a choice twice a week, because they’re buying for their children. But sustainability is a little slower to come about in corn, soybeans, cotton, and rice because they’re a lot more removed from those demand signals.
“For example, if you’re selling rice into Southeast Asia to fill demand for a government agency, they’re never going to ask sustainability questions. On the other hand,
BUILDING CONSUMER TRUST
In working with the dairy industry, Knight says, “When I started this work almost eight years ago, dairy was focused almost entirely on environment and carbon issues. It’s only been in the last few years that animal care came from behind and now leads the dairy effort on sustainability.
“Animal care quickly became more important to the dairy consumer than environmental advocacy, and the industry turned its focus to showing consumers how it embraces responsible care in order to maintain, enhance, and build consumer trust.”
Other attributes include labor/worker rights, biodiversity, community values, energy use, feed management, herd management, return on investment, economics, etc.
“One of the things commonly done to achieve efficiency is energy audits,” Knight says. “That’s because much of it is coming from corporate America, and energy audits are easy. But corporate America has found that energy audits also usually make money — they’re a good return on investment.
“It’s the same for precision placement technology for fuel, water, and fertilizer in agriculture. Are we doing it just for sustainability? No, for 90 percent of us it’s an efficiency measure; it makes money. The same thing has been true for biotechnology, biologics, animal care/husbandry — it’s more profitable. We’re finding that some of these old-fashioned things we’ve been doing forever in agriculture, and don’t think of in terms of sustainability, are some of our best sustainability measures.
“Take herd management. What’s your cull rate? Are you turning over your cow herd at eight years or six years? There’s a huge difference between the two in terms of sustainability and return on investment.
“We’ve got a really strong case,” Knight says, “for what we’ve been able to do over the last several decades toward reducing agriculture’s environmental impact, while increasing efficiency."
(This is the first of two articles.)