January 21, 2010

3 Min Read

A major policy question for the 21st century is how to address the food, fuel and fiber needs of a world whose population is expected to explode without having a major impact on the environment.

A consortium of agricultural groups, producers, agribusinesses, food companies and conservation organizations has come together to address those concerns and to determine methods of measuring and implementing “agricultural sustainability” in the nation’s major field crops.

The mission of the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is to find ways to increase agricultural production for the long term without having negative impacts on the environment, according to Sarah Stokes Alexander, director of sustainability and leadership programs for the center. She described The Keystone Center as a “think-and-do tank.”

Alexander spoke to farmers and ranchers during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 91st annual meeting.

The “Field to Market” initiative is committed to achieving long-term, continuous improvement in sustainable agricultural production along the entire food chain. The initial study included corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton.

Alexander said these crops had not been “part of the conversation to date” in regard to sustainable agriculture.

The Keystone Center research shows that as the global population reaches 9 billion by 2050, the need for agricultural products will double. Alexander noted that the Field to Market initiative seeks to find the methods and means to increase overall productivity in U.S. agriculture without negatively affecting the environment.

One of the tools the center has developed is called the “Fieldprint Calculator,” which allows farmers to assess their overall sustainability quotient in the areas of energy use, soil loss, irrigation water use, land use and climate impact.

The online calculator is free and is designed to give growers an easy-to-use tool to calculate the footprint of their individual natural resource management programs.

Alexander said the calculator is a pilot project and the program is seeking input from growers “on how to make it more useful as a decision-making tool.”

The initial phase of the study found that farmers had already made significant strides in “sustainability” as it relates to land and water use and that, “production agriculture has become more efficient over time, suggesting positive progress toward meeting increasing demand for agricultural products while decreasing its impact on the environment.”

AFBF chief economist Bob Young said the Field to Market effort is “the premier sustainability initiative” in the nation at this time and is credible because it involves all segments of the food chain from the farmer to the retailer.

Philip Bradshaw, chairman of the United Soybean Board, also attended the seminar and told attendees the effort was important because, “When we have sustainability how do we have credibility?” He said the program was a foundation for moving forward, “or we’re going to have other people telling us what to do.” Bradshaw is a soybean farmer from Griggsville, Ill.

Alexander said a major challenge of the effort is how to “continue to provide people with access to and the ability to pay for safe, nutritious food while sustaining grower profitability over time…without impacting the environment.” “Sustainability is not going to be sustainable if it comes at a production cost,” she added.

Audience member Phillip Brumley from the central valley of California said a lot of people in his state equate sustainability with organic agriculture. Brumley, president of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau, said there are many activist groups in his state that are trying to affect agricultural producers’ ability “to farm profitably and appropriately…and they could put us out of business.” Brumley produces almonds, walnuts and rice in the Golden State.

Being able to measure the various components of the agricultural “footprint” will allow farmers along the food chain to provide products for consumers who want to make “sustainable food and fiber choices,” according to John Wolf, vice-president of ingredients, commodities and risk management at Kellogg Co.

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