The biofuel industry has been under constant attack from those who contend that increased production of crops driven by energy demand is resulting in soil and water degradation. However, the motivation that has driven growers to increase yields for food, feed, fiber and fuels is also driving producers to find and implement ways to farm more sustainably.
U.S. agricultural producers understand that a failure to sustain the resources that give them the means to make their living is a ‘lose/lose’ proposition.
In testimony before a House subcommittee this week, Pam Johnson, the president of the National Corn Growers Association, said that over the past three decades, corn production has benefited from technological and land management advances. In 1960, the average U.S. farmer fed 26 people, compared to 155 people today. Citing an analysis issued last month by the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, Johnson said that over the last 30 years, corn production has improved on all measures of resource efficiency, including decreasing per bushel land use by 30 percent, soil erosion by 67 percent, water for irrigation by 53 percent and energy use by 43 percent.
The truth is that topsoil loss, nutrient runoff, pesticide movement and other production issues have been a challenge since the origins of farming. By the sheer volume required to meet the needs of a global population (and yes, U.S. farmers help feed the world’s population of more than 7 billion people, up from 1.6 billion in 1900), those challenges have increased.
However, U.S. producers are very aware that more needs to be done to eliminate runoff that carries nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous into nearby waterways, reduce farming’s carbon footprint and ensure working lands are left in increasingly better shape.
Agricultural operations are working with USDA, DOE, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and many other government and private sector institutions that are exploring the means to lessen agriculture’s environmental impacts, particularly those stemming from increased biofuel demand. 25x’25 partners, including Deere & Co., AGCO, Monsanto, the National Association of Conservation Districts, the Fertilizer Institute, the Agricultural Retailers Association and others, are actively involved in these efforts and are collaborating in the development of better management practices, like precision farming systems, for example, that reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, and offer environmental benefits and economic returns.
USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) has created a large partnership that has energized the conservation and research communities. CEAP leverages the funding and expertise of more than 60 partners, including federal and state agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations. Assessments are done on the field, watershed and landscape levels, analyzing the cumulative effects and benefits of conservation practices, including those promoted by various farm bill programs, on natural resources and the environment. Researchers look at conservation buffers, erosion control, wetlands conservation and restoration, as well as the management of tillage, irrigation water, nutrients and pests.
Researchers with DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory are examining a Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based approach to sustainable bioenergy production that focuses on the recovery of marginal land, nutrients and impaired water. The approach is expected to offer better farm nitrogen use efficiency, restoration of contaminated water and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from both biomass and grain crops.
No one argues that agriculture can – and does – have a significant impact on soil and water quality in the United States. But biofuel production is not the major source of these challenges. As long as the world desires safe, affordable, and abundant food, feed, fiber, and fuel, there will be some impact on the land. But as demonstrated by a vast array of research, technological advances, evolving best management practices and conscientious stewardship, agriculture is showing that it is not only mitigating these impacts, but working to enhance our natural resources.