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Report creates framework for measuring agriculture sustainability
Jan '09
A first-of-its-kind report released today creates a framework for measuring agriculture sustainability. Developed to inform long-term continuous improvements in agriculture production, the initial findings indicate crop production is already making progress toward reducing its environmental footprint. The Environmental Resource Indicators report was released at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting by Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.

Field to Market is a diverse alliance representing the many links in the food chain, including grower organizations, agribusinesses, food companies and conservation organizations. As demand continues to rise and pressures on natural resources increase, the Alliance views the report as the first step in a long-term effort to quantify and improve the environmental, socio-economic and health impacts of agriculture production. The report evaluated national-scale metrics over the past two decades for land use, water use, energy use, soil loss, and climate impact in corn, soy, cotton and wheat production. In 2007, these crops comprised nearly 70 percent of the 305 million acres of U.S. cropland.

“Several trends are emerging. Importantly, production agriculture has become increasingly efficient, relying on fewer inputs to produce more. However, we recognize there are significant challenges ahead in meeting increased global demand in a sustainable manner,” says Michael Reuter, director of conservation programs for the Central US Region of The Nature Conservancy. “These metrics will be expanded to define other attributes of sustainable agricultural production and lay the foundation for studies that will analyze additional environmental, socio-economic, and health factors.”

Progress has been made. The initial index shows that soil-loss efficiency trends have improved substantially by 30 to nearly 70 percent for the four crops evaluated. Energy use per unit of output is down in corn, soybean, and cotton production by nearly 40 to more than 60 percent. Irrigated water use per unit of output has also decreased 20 percent to nearly 50 percent while carbon emissions per unit of output have dropped by about a third for these three crops. The results are intended to provide meaningful and credible information to shape knowledge-based decisions and allow tracking of trends over time. A next-generation report will assess water quality and biodiversity indicators.

These improvements are especially important when put into the context of global needs for food and fiber. Experts predict demand for agricultural goods will double by 2050 as global population increases by an additional 3 billion people.

Agriculture is already the predominant user of all habitable land and 70 percent of fresh water. By 2030 grain-producing land per capita will drop to just a third of what it was in 1950, while the World Water Council predicts in just a decade we willneed 17 percent more water than is available to feed the world. The industry is working diligently on collaborative solutions to meet these challenges.

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