GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Bushels per acre has been a standard measure of farm productivity, but a growing awareness of limited land and water is changing the metrics. Moving forward, productivity also will be measured against a new yardstick that factors in the effects of crop production on land, soil, water and energy, says Jennifer Shaw, head of sustainability with Syngenta.
"This is where demands to increase the sustainability of agriculture are leading us," says Shaw.  "It's a consequence of our population growth, and the planetary needs of this growth, which will see 2 billion more people by 2050 -- more than 100 million right here in the U.S."
Shaw grew up on a farm in northern Scotland, earned an undergraduate degree in agricultural zoology and, later, a Ph.D. in ecology. She recognizes that meeting the demands of a growing population is nothing new to the world of agriculture. The American farmer feeds an average of 144 people, almost an eight-fold increase from 1940. Most of the increase has come from higher yields. Per-acre production of corn, for example, has doubled since 1970.
"The goal is still more bushels, bales or pounds per acre," says Shaw. "But this time around, yield increases must be achieved against a backdrop of limited, and in some cases, diminishing natural resources, from the obvious inputs, such as topsoil and water, to the less obvious, like ecosystems that support the bee populations that pollinate our crops."
From a farmer's perspective, it begs the question: Can the farm gate be both eco-friendly and profitable?
It's already happening, says Shaw. Productivity itself must be a key component of sustainable agriculture, she maintains. Every acre that produces more food, feed and fiber helps to keep another acre in its natural habitat, preserving natural landscapes that are essential for ecosystem balance.
"What's different today is the need for measurement that goes beyond bushels per acre," says Shaw. "How much land are we using? How much water? How much energy? What is the effect on soil health and water quality? With a new yardstick in place, we must incorporate environmental initiatives in a way that preserves grower profitability."
This is a major focus of the Syngenta Sustainability Team formed in May 2009, which builds on Syngenta's historic commitment to sustainable agriculture to specifically explore avenues of overlap between farm profitability and environmental sustainability.
"We're not re-inventing the wheel, but building on what's already out there," says Terry Stone, sustainability value chain manager with Syngenta. A recent survey shows that more than two-thirds of cotton growers now use some form of conservation tillage, which not only prevents soil erosion but also saves energy and water. Many also have moved away from monoculture, rotating crops as well as modes of action to manage weed and insect resistance, protect beneficial insects, and increase yields. The survey was conducted by Cotton Incorporated, a trade group that helps companies produce, manufacture, market and sell cotton products more efficiently and more profitably.
"We have decreased cotton's use of water and chemicals by 40 percent, and we can tie that directly to the use of new technologies like Bt cotton and precision agriculture," says Janet Reed, associate director of environmental research with Cotton Inc.
In fruit and vegetable cropping, producers are adopting drip irrigation technology to reduce water consumption by up to 40 percent -- an eco-efficient move that conserves water while reducing production costs.
"The common denominator must be return on investment," reflects Stone. "A farm that is not profitable is not sustainable, but neither is a farm that pursues profitability without considering the environmental impact. The purpose of the Syngenta Sustainability Team is to identify ways in which growers can manage both their farm inputs and their farm resources for the greatest possible return on investment."

SOURCE: Syngenta.