Commentary: 12 half-baked ideas for improving agriculture

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Since when does the U.S. have a “broken food system,” as claimed by the Worldwatch Institute? What the U.S. has is the world’s most efficient food and feed production system. What the Worldwatch Institute would prefer is inefficient worldwide agriculture similar to farming in 1952.

The activist Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington, D.C., claims climate change is making it increasingly important to protect local agriculture in the United States and address the issues underlying its vulnerability to natural disasters, such as drought.

What happened during the Dust Bowl has something to do with failure of the old-time farming practices. In my opinion, a lot of the improvements in agricultural production practices of the last 20 years are contrary to Worldwatch Institute suggestions. Modern farmers of today are protecting the environment and doing a better job of feeding an expanding world population than U.S. farmers following most of Worldwatch’s outdated suggestions.    

"Fixing our broken food system is about more than just food prices," said Danielle Nierenberg, director of the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project. "It's about better management of natural resources, equitable distribution and the right to healthy and nutritious food."

The Nourishing the Planet ( project highlights 12 agricultural innovations that it claims can help make U.S. and global agriculture more drought resilient, as well as sustainable. (My comments about each of the 12 points are in italic type.)

1. Agroforestry: Planting trees in and around farms reduces soil erosion by providing a natural barrier against strong winds and rainfall. Tree roots also stabilize and nourish soils. The 1990 Farm Bill established the USDA National Agroforestry Center with the expressed aim of encouraging farmers to grow trees as windbreaks or as part of combined forage and livestock production, among other uses. (Pasture ground in general has some trees for livestock shade. Wind breaks are good around farm lots and houses. Trees around fields reduce the acres that can be planted, and crops grown near trees are much less productive because the trees pull nutrients and moisture.)  

2. Soil management: Alternating crop species allows soil periods of rest, restores nutrients, and also controls pests. Soil amendments, such as biochar, help soils retain moisture near the surface by providing a direct source of water and nutrients to plant roots, even in times of drought. (Adding soil amendments can be good for soil, including manure, but there is the potential to overdue it and have pollutant runoff. Resting soil refers to leaving ground fallow in most agricultural terms, which would mean huge acres out of production at any one time, including acres that can produce yearly without negative consequences.)  

3. Increasing crop diversity: Mono-cropping often exposes crops to pests and diseases associated with overcrowding, and can increase market dependence on a few varieties: in the United States, almost 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished in favor of mono-cultured staples such as Pink Lady apples and Yukon Gold potatoes. Encouraging diversity through agricultural subsidies and informed consumption choices can help reverse this trend and the threat it poses to domestic food security. (Crop rotation is usually a good thing, but to suggest the world is being overrun with Yukon Gold potatoes and Pink Lady apples and squeezing out other varieties seems far fetched. Then to suggest consumers should buy alternatives to these as a way to sway the market to grow some other variety is even more far fetched. I also cannot see Worldwatch Institute members wanting the government to tell them what to grow through government subsidy programs.)

4. Improving food production from existing livestock: Improved animal husbandry practices can increase milk and meat quantities without the need to increase herd sizes or associated environmental degradation. In India, farmers are improving the quality of their feed by using grass, sorghum, stover, and brans to produce more milk from fewer animals. This also reduces pressure on global corn supplies. (Animal husbandry has been improved over the years and continues and that means artificial insemination, too. Feed rations are improved and feedstocks that have potential are assessed constantly.)   

5. Diversifying livestock breeds: Most commercial farming operations rely on a narrow range of commercial breeds selected for their high productivity and low input needs. Selective breeding, however, has also made these breeds vulnerable to diseases and changing environments. Lesser-known livestock such as North American Bison are often hardier and produce richer milk. (Every breed of livestock is vulnerable to major disease concerns with an example being foot and mouth disease; vulnerability is not based on whether it is an angus or charolais cow. As for the example of raising bison, anyone who has seen the effort and expense to raise this animal with its wild instincts wouldn’t suggest those animals or any other wild animal as a major replacement for meat or milk.)  

6. "Meatless Mondays": Choosing not to eat meat at least one day a week will reduce the environmental impacts associated with livestock as well as increase food availability in domestic and global markets. Current production methods require 7 kilograms of grain and 100,000 liters of water for every 1 kilogram of meat. Livestock production accounts for an estimated 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and roughly 23 percent of agricultural water use worldwide. (The vegetarians of the world can do as they please, but the howl against Meatless Mondays has been widely heard. Livestock producers have a lot of messages to counter this vegetarian point of view. The statement that it takes 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of meat is outrageously high.)

7. Smarter irrigation systems: The Ogallala High Plains Aquifer, which supplies essential groundwater to many Midwestern states, is experiencing record rates of depletion due to extraction for irrigation purposes. Almost 50 percent of commercial and residential irrigation water, however, is wasted due to evaporation, wind, improper design, and overwatering. Installing water sensors or micro-irrigation technology and planning water-efficient gardens or farms using specific crops and locations can significantly reduce water scarcity problems. (Everyone should be in agreement that efficient irrigation is important for the future, and I’m glad there is mention of efficient homeowner use of water along with farmer use of water. Even if the initial install is expensive, there is the need for major upgrades to irrigation technology for field irrigation.)  

8. Integrated farming systems: Farming systems, such as permaculture, improve soil fertility and agricultural productivity by using natural resources as sustainably and efficiently as possible. Research and implementation of permaculture techniques, such as recycling wastewater or planting groups of plants that utilize the same resources in related ways, are expanding rapidly across the United States. (I have to admit that I’m not up to speed on the permaculture techniques referenced, but I do know that non-commercial forms of fertilizer cannot be the whole answer to keeping soil fertility high. And soil fertility needs to be high to grow crops economically with the highest yield per dollar invested. Techniques such as using cover crops makes sense, too.)  

9. Agroecological and organic farming: Organic and agroecological farming methods are designed to build soil quality and promote plant and animal health in harmony with local ecosystems. Research shows that they can increase sustainable yield goals by 50 percent or more with relatively few external inputs. In contrast, genetic engineering occasionally increases output by 10 percent, often with unanticipated impacts on crop physiology and resistance. (I certainly disagree with this point. Organic doesn’t necessarily translate into a better farm and certainly not higher yields than farming using conventional pesticides. I’m a strong proponent of biotechnology improving crops, just at a faster pace than old plant and animal breeding.)  

10. Supporting small-scale farmers: Existing agricultural subsidies in the United States cater disproportionately to large-scale agribusinesses, 80 percent of which produce corn for animal feed and ethanol. This means that small-scale producers are affected more acutely by natural disasters and fluctuating commodity prices, even though they are more likely to be involved in food production. Government extension and support services should be adjusted to alleviate this deficit. (Blaming corn producers for everything that happens in the pricing of every food and feed commodity grown in the U.S. is ridiculous. Large-scale production is the future, the days of the majority of feed and food coming from 80-acre family farms is gone and won’t return, no matter how nostalgic Worldwatch Institute members want to be.) 

11. Re-evaluating ethanol subsidies: Although ethanol's share of U.S. gasoline is still relatively small (projected at 15-17 percent by 2030), in 2009 the Congressional Budget Office reported that increased demand for corn ethanol has, at times, contributed to 10-15 percent of the rise in food prices. Encouraging clean energy alternatives to crop-based biofuels will increase the amount of food available for consumption, both at home and abroad. (There is constant discussion about how much different prices of food would be and the amount of food that would actually go to other countries if less corn was used for ethanol. It is a good thing that large-scale cellulosic ethanol production is just around the corner.)

12. Agricultural Research and Development (R&D): The share of agricultural R&D undertaken by the U.S. public sector fell from 54 percent in 1986 to 28 percent in 2009, and private research has filled the gap. Private companies, however, are often legally bound to maximize economic returns for investors, raising concerns over scientific independence and integrity. Increased government funding and support for agricultural research, development, and training programs can help address issues such as hunger, malnutrition, and poverty without being compromised by corporate objectives. (You’ll never get an argument with me about the government continuing to invest in agricultural research. That investment is needed.)  

Although food prices will certainly continue to rise as the current drought runs its course, it is clear that the United States has the knowledge and the know-how to make its agricultural system more sustainable and food secure. It's now a question of putting these innovations to work. (I am in agreement with the first sentence, but I don’t believe the solution is putting Worldwatch’s “innovations to work.”)

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Austin Moore    
Stillwater, OK  |  August, 08, 2012 at 08:06 AM

Agricultural practices have improved dramatically. The Dust Bowl is a perfect illustration of this. In 2011, Oklahoma suffered worse drought conditions than any single year of the Dust Bowl Era. But due to modern agricultural practices, the results were nothing like the Dust Bowl. We conserve soil and protect it well.

James Reiss    
Garden Plain, IL  |  August, 17, 2012 at 10:14 AM

A lot of riduculous ideas based on misinformation with a spackling of a few valid points. Reads like something developed in someone's parents basement without a lot of real world farming expereince. Suggestions from those that know little of farming's past, present or future. Much of this should hold the same validity as my suggestions for improving the nuclear energy industry or neurological surgery techniques. Oh yeh, I have some ideas for NASA as well.

Tim Gieseke    
New Ulm, MN  |  August, 24, 2012 at 02:42 PM

Farmers today have a tendency to overlook the vulnerability of soil as the market and farm policy supports a bit of erosion today for a larger crop. Most of the farm community has the opinion that a little erosion is just fine and that a lot of erosion is okay as long as it seems to only happen once in while - hopefully not every year. Drive across the Midwest in May and it is quite apparent of the value farmers place on soil. What they say and what they do about it are two different things. To their defense, they have to let erosion occur. When you have corn-soy rotation you have to accept some pretty high rates of erosion, certainly much higher than the rate that it is created. Same as aquifers, a farmer will pump out an aquifer at the rate they need it, not at the rate that it is recharged - same as soil. I farm, I know the economics of it and I see it happening. As Yogi Bera says, " You can observe a whole lot just by watching". Open you eyes and look at the land - if it isn't obvious your eyes or your mind are not open.

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