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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Hope for Healthy Farms
Much modern farming, whether for plants or meat, harms the environment. But “climate-smart” agriculture could turn that around. 04/19/2021 by Temma Ehrenfeld

Good farmland stores carbon. Iowa’s deep, black soil was among the world’s most productive when first planted, but only a century later, half of that had been eroded by plowing, inviting losses from wind and runoff.

As the loss continued, it was aggravated by floods, set loose by abused, rootless land that had lost structural integrity. 

Soil erosion on a cultivated field after heavy rainfall
A single heavy rain shower can cause significant, visible erosion in frequently plowed fields.

Satellite imagery now shows that across the U.S. Corn Belt, low areas still have dark fertile soil, but the high spots, which are more subject to erosion, are tan and beige, the color of minimally fertile subsoil.

Altogether, from 24 to 46 percent of the fertile soil is gone in this prime American farmland, which includes all of Iowa and parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. (Klinkenborg, 2021; Thaler et al., 2021).

We’ve heard it for decades: American farmers feed the world. As world population grows, world food output must increase as well. In fact, the United Nations has forecast that it must double to feed nine billion people by 2050 (Schechinger and Cox, 2016). Yet our current agricultural use patterns are unsustainable.

Can we protect our farmland and environment without raising food prices and increasing world hunger? Recent research suggests the happy answer is yes (Hertel et al., 2020).

First, the bad news:

Modern farming is rapidly depleting our resources.

  • Farming uses 70 percent of the world’s fresh water (OECD, 2021), and pollutes other water with fertilizer byproducts, creating dead zones like the one that forms every summer in the Gulf of Mexico (Rabelais et al., 2019).
  • The planet loses nearly 50 square miles of forest every year, threatening wildlife (Hertel, 2021).
  • Farming also produces roughly a quarter of our yearly global greenhouse gas emissions (Hertel, 2021). About 35 percent of that is from animals digesting food, the rest is from farm machinery and metabolism of bacteria in soil.
  • Protected acreage in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program dropped by more than 40 percent from 2007 to 2019, erasing much of the environmental benefits of the program (Hertel, 2021).

Now, the good news:

Rural alpine landscape with cows grazing in fresh green meadows near snocapped mountain tops
Northern European farms, like this one near Salzburg, Switzerland, often artfully combine wild and cultivated land.

Northern Europe, which has steadily put aside land to protect the environment, has nonetheless been able to maintain its total farm output over the last thirty years (Heisey and Fuglie, 2018).

In a study last year by Thomas Hertel with colleagues at Purdue and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a computer model concluded that if the U.S. and other rich economies followed the same conservation strategy as northern Europe, food prices in sub-Sahara Africa would rise slightly. But the difference could be made up by increasing local productivity.

This matters, because this is the area most prone to starvation. In short, conservation to lower carbon footprints or soil runoff doesn’t have to increase food prices or world hunger (Hertel et al., 2020).

As it now stands, very little of U.S. agriculture exports feed the world’s poor. American farmers contributed only 2.3 percent of the food supply for the 19 most undernourished countries through food exports and aid (Schechinger and Cox, 2016).

Ending world hunger while protecting the environment requires helping small farmers in the developing world feed themselves, and advancing “climate-smart agriculture” everywhere, including in the U.S. farm belt (FA0, 2015, Hertel, 2021, Schechinger and Cox 2016).

How would U.S. farm policy change?

For some seven decades, U.S. farm policy has promoted increasing crop production with more machinery and more sophisticated seeds (via hybridization or genetic modification). Since 1933, farmers have been paid to take land out of cultivation, to protect them from falling prices. They also can participate in a program to protect environmentally sensitive land—protecting wildlife, and preventing erosion and declines in water quality.

However, the program is completely voluntary. It tries to motivate farmers by paying more for the most productive land-current rental rates under the Conservation Reserve Program 2021 range from $243 per acre in Cuming, Nebraska to just $6 in Sutton, Texas. But that hasn’t been enough to keep land in the program. When crop prices began to soar in 2007, protected acreage plunged (Hertel, 2021).

The European Union has made conservation the centerpiece of its strategy, and since 2013 has required farmers to set aside five percent of their land. The farmed acreage next to the “rewilded” tracts actually have improved crop yields as it benefited from natural control of pests by native birds, insects and wild predators (Hertel, 2021).

Texas bluebonnet field and blue sky in Ennis, Texas
Preserving natural landscapes – such as this field next to grazing land in Ennis, Texas – is a key to maintaining farmland soil health and productivity.

Hertel and others propose that the United States invest more heavily in research to fuel better management in agriculture with the environment in mind. The United States might emulate Europe by making set-asides mandatory or change the Conservation Reserve Program in other ways so enrollment doesn’t decline.

One step in the right direction: The Biden administration extended the yearly signup for the program (USDA, 2021), which had been slated to end in 2021.

Develop “climate-smart” agriculture

Former FA0 Director-General José Graziano da Silva called for "climate-smart agriculture"—cutting the impact of farming on the land and the environment around it, while making it more resilient to changing weather and other conditions (FA0, 2015).

In addition to setting land aside at the Europeans have done, we could return to no-till agriculture, seeding through what remains of last year’s growth rather than plowing that creates further erosion. When the soil is stabilized by last year’s roots, it doesn’t erode as much and accumulates carbon, a resource for the future (Klinkenborg, 2021; Thaler et al., 2021).

Think small

Beyond that, it’s time to move away from corporate mega-farms covering tens of thousands of acres. Small farms have higher yields and produce more diverse crops and landscapes.

When a team from British Columbia analyzed existing research, it concluded that yields decreased five percent for every extra hectare as farm size increased. In a study of farms in 55 countries growing 154 crops, the same group found that small farms have more diverse crops. This may be because small farmers choose diversity to feed their families, protect themselves from drought and have more options for sales.

Small farms also use fewer pesticides and leave corridors between them where diverse animal life can flourish. Finally, a small-farm landscape is more likely to include forest and wetlands, fields of different crops and fields in different stages of production (Ricciardi, 2021). All can help preserve freshwater cleanliness.

The American experiment with high-tech, mammoth one-crop farms needs to give way to a future in which small farmers in the United States and around the world feed us sustainably, equipped with the technology and wisdom to manage climate change.




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