Commentary: 12 half-baked ideas for improving agriculture
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.)
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