A new report demonstrates how six commodity crops including wheat are being produced more efficiently in the U.S. than they were 30 years ago, accompanied by important improvements in farm safety and economic sustainability for producers.
The data was released Thursday by Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, which is a broad-based coalition of farm and environmental groups, agribusinesses, universities and major food companies.
Developed by this diverse group of stakeholders, the new report is a follow-up to a similar study done in 2009, with updated data and methods as well as additional crops and new socioeconomic indicators.
The report analyzes national-scale trends in environmental and socioeconomic progress over time, relying on publicly-available data to estimate performance on eleven agricultural sustainability indicators ranging from soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions to labor hours and debt-to-asset ratios.
The coalition, which is working to define and measure sustainability on the farm and in the food system, believes the report's information will provide broad context for sustainability discussions and create a baseline against which to monitor future change.
"Sustainability for agriculture is a complex, multidimensional topic," said Stewart Ramsey, principal and senior economist at IHS Global Insight, which conducted the analyses for the report.
"The intent of this report is to bring together best available data and science to inform the conversation and provide a picture of U.S. agriculture's sustainability changes over the past three decades."
Part one of the 179-page report analyzes environmental indicators from 1980 to 2011 including land use, soil erosion, irrigation water applied, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for six crops, including wheat, corn, cotton, potato, rice and soybeans.
It found that, over the study period, all six crops demonstrated progress in improving resource use and impact per unit of production on all five environmental indicators.
For example, soil erosion per unit of production has improved by between 47 to 67 percent for the six crops studied, and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production have decreased between 15 percent and more than 42 percent for the six crops studied.
Improvements in efficiency were driven, at least in part, by improvements in yield across all crops, ranging from 25 percent to 64 percent.
However, due in part to overall increases in production for five of the six crops (excluding wheat) and increases in total land use for four of the six crops (excluding potatoes and wheat), total resource use and impact increased for many crops on many indicators.
The second part of the report analyzes socioeconomic indicators for five crops, including wheat, corn, cotton, rice and soybeans.
The report found that indicators for debt-to-asset ratio, fatalities and non-fatality injury improved over their respective time periods and farm classification. Labor hours per planted acre decreased for corn, cotton, rice and soybeans and remained nearly constant for wheat.
Returns over variable costs were inconsistent over the report's reference time period, but have been increasing for all crops, excluding cotton, since approximately 2002, and for cotton since 2009.
The report found that the agricultural sector's contribution to national gross domestic product (GDP) has increased over the explored time period in absolute terms but decreased as a share of total.
NAWG is an active member of the Field to Market coalition and plans to continue work with the broader agriculture community to use the new data in its sustainability efforts.
The full report is available online at http://www.fieldtomarket.org/report/.