Source: American Farm Bureau Federation

"Sustainability" has become a buzzword in the modern marketplace, American Farm Bureau Federation Chief Economist Bob Young said at the organization's 90th annual meeting.

That's why the Keystone Alliance, a coalition of producer organizations, conservation and environmental groups, university experts, and major crop technology and food companies, has devised a definition of economic and environmental sustainability focusing on "meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Those needs will include at least doubling global ag productivity over the next 40 years while using less land and water, according to Sarah Stokes Alexander, the Keystone Center's director of sustainability and leadership programs. At the same time, however, Alexander reported that "sustainable expectations are on the rise" among policymakers and food manufacturers and retailers.

Last Monday, the Keystone Center and AFBF released Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance's initial report on U.S. ag resource efficiency in corn, cotton, soybean and wheat production from 1987 through 2007. "We talk about an environmental footprint," Young said. "We've actually got the graph that can show you that footprint."

The Colorado-based Keystone Center examined five resource indicators: land use, soil loss, irrigation water use, net carbon emissions and energy use.

Corn growers in particular posted impressive gains, boosting per-acre productivity by 41 percent while reducing per-bushel land use by 37 percent, per-bushel soil losses by nearly 70 percent, and water use an average of 27 percent per bushel. Energy use dropped an estimated 3 percent per acre and 37 percent per bushel, with greenhouse gas emissions down 8 percent per acre and 30 percent per bushel.

Cotton and soybeans showed similarly positive gains.
Applying its cumulative data, the Keystone Center is developing a natural resource calculator tool that will provide growers with comparative benchmarks for reducing soil loss and improving water and energy efficiency. It will also allow individuals to share practices and concepts that have helped them bolster environmental and economic performance.

The Keystone Alliance next plans to consider producer progress in meeting water quality, biodiversity and profit objectives," Young said. "You have to be economically sustainable before you can be any other kind of sustainable."