The Emerging Field of Sustainable Agriculture – State of the Planet

I grew up in Brooklyn and have spent most of my life living in Morningside Heights in Manhattan; my only exposure to farming life was during the last of my five years living in Franklin, Indiana, when I delivered the Daily Journal Newspaper to farmers in rural Johnson and Brown counties. Occasionally, when the farmers were a little short of cash, they paid for their newspapers with produce. I know very little about farming, except that farmers seem to be the hardest-working people I’ve ever known. Modern industrial farming has made American agriculture the most productive in the world, but it is capital-intensive, risky, and polluting. An emerging movement in sustainable agriculture is developing, which promises continued productivity with less pollution. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists:

“There’s a transformation taking place on farms across the United States. For decades, we’ve produced the bulk of our food through industrial agriculture—a system dominated by large farms growing the same crops year after year, using enormous amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that damage our soil, water, air, and climate. This system is not built to last, because it squanders and degrades the resources it depends on. But a growing number of innovative farmers and scientists are taking a different path, moving toward a farming system that is more sustainable—environmentally, economically, and socially. This system has room for farms of all sizes, producing a diverse range of foods, fibers, and fuels adapted to local conditions and regional markets. It uses state-of-the-art, science-based practices that maximize productivity and profit while minimizing environmental damage. Sustainability also means the whole system is more resilient to droughts, floods, and other impacts of climate change that farmers are already seeing. Though the move to this type of system often involves some up-front costs, smart public policies can help farmers make the shift.”

Techniques such as rotating crops and integrating livestock and crops can reduce costs and maintain soil productivity with less need for chemicals and other costly interventions. Notably, some of the “sustainable” techniques represent a return to traditional methods of farming. The issue for many farmers is the capital requirements needed for some of the technology required for sustainable farming and the revenue deferred when giving the soil time to regenerate itself. One company that has addressed these issues is Land O’Lakes, which is a cooperative populated by farmers who are part owners of the company. According to a 2021 Press Release on the Land O’Lakes website:

“Land O’Lakes, Inc. today announced new on-farm sustainability commitments to be adopted by its more than 1,600 member-dairy farms by 2025. Within the next four years, all Land O’Lakes’ dairy farmer-owners will complete an intensive, industry-leading on-farm sustainability assessment aligned with the U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment while maintaining universal compliance with the National Milk Producers Federation’s National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program. This announcement is the next step in Land O’Lakes’ enterprise-wide approach to on-farm sustainability.”

This company has learned that sustainability practices can reduce both costs and pollution. By using satellites, automation, GPS, and other technologies, they can precisely target water, fertilizer, and pesticides to plants, thereby reducing resource use, costs, and pollution. Managing manure from their many dairy cows enables Land O’Lakes to utilize this resource for fertilizer and energy. Efforts are underway to promote these methods globally, with limited success. According to Rochelle Toplensky of the Wall Street Journal:

“The Sustainable Markets Initiative, a private-sector group launched in 2020, set up its Agribusiness Task Force to accelerate regenerative agriculture adoption and includes senior leaders from Mars, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Bayer, McCain, Mondelez and others. The task force’s 2022 report concluded the main hurdle to adopting regenerative practices was that farmers’ short-term economics don’t add up, but it also found there was a knowledge gap and not everyone in the value-chain was aligned. Follow-up work concluded that farmers need financial incentives and derisking mechanisms as well as technical and peer-to-peer support. Also important were agreeing [to] environmental outcome metrics and creating supportive policy and payments for so-called ecosystem services such as rebuilding biodiversity and water quality.”

In the United States—and throughout the world—there is potential for a transformation of agricultural practices to make them more efficient and less polluting. But agriculture is an industry characterized by a wide variety of cultural traditions, business models, and geographic conditions. Sustainable practices make economic and environmental sense, and farmers who practice them will outcompete those who don’t. Nevertheless, the transition requires capital, technical expertise, and the willingness and training to experiment with new production processes. The piece by the Union of Concerned Scientists recognizes this and calls for public policy to provide the incentives needed to bring about this transition. The United States has had an activist federal farm policy since the 19th century. It dates back to the establishment of Land Grant Colleges in the Morrill Act of 1862, where the federal government gave states federal lands in exchange for the establishment of agricultural colleges. The federal government also developed agricultural extension services to train farmers in the latest methods of farming.

In the United States, agricultural policies and subsidies are legislated in the “Farm Bill,” which has been renewed eighteen times since it was first enacted during the New Deal of the 1930s. According to the Congressional Research Services Primer on the Farm Bill, last updated on February 29, 2024:

“Farm bills traditionally have focused on farm commodity program support for a handful of staple commodities—corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, dairy, and sugar. Farm bills have become increasingly expansive in nature since 1973, when a nutrition title was first included. Other prominent additions since then include horticulture and bioenergy titles and expansion of conservation, research, and rural development titles.”

Traditionally, agriculture policy in the United States was dominated by rural farm states due to their over-representation in the United States Senate. Lightly populated farm states have the same number of senators (two) as heavily populated industrial states. Farm policy was more important in rural states, and in exchange for votes from industrial states on urban initiatives, farm-state senators traditionally dominated U.S. agriculture policy. This changed in the 1970s when food subsidies for poor people were added to the farm bill, and today, over 75% of the funding in the farm bill subsidizes these “nutrition” programs. In the most recent farm bill, nutrition funding totaled $1.1 billion, crop insurance $124 million, and conservation funding was about $58 million. The politics of agriculture policy is no longer dominated by the farm states. According to the Congressional Research Service:

“The omnibus nature of the farm bill can create broad coalitions of support among sometimes conflicting interests for policies that individually might have greater difficulty achieving majority support in the legislative process. In recent years, more stakeholders have become involved in the debate on farm bills, including national farm groups; commodity associations; state organizations; nutrition and public health officials; and advocacy groups representing conservation, recreation, rural development, faith-based interests, local food systems, and organic production. These factors can contribute to increased interest in the allocation of funds provided in a farm bill.”

This broader coalition might be drawn upon to support an expansion of agricultural subsidies to enable farms to receive the financial support needed to transition to renewable agricultural practices in the United States. Farm policy and environmental/climate policy might well be brought together to modernize American agriculture and reduce its release of toxics and greenhouse gasses into the environment. Funding the transition to renewable agriculture does not need to be justified as climate policy, although it would have the impact of reducing greenhouse gas pollution. It could well be sold as modernizing American agriculture to better position it for global competition.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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