Sustainability in production ag and vice versa

The question of whether it is possible to create a sustainable production agriculture system has been passed around twitter (see #profood) quite a bit, which really got me thinking. Coincidentally, I also had to write a midterm essay in Foundations of Sustainable Agriculture, and one of the options for essays actually asked us to defend whether or not it was possible to have sustinability in a production system. I’ve made an effort to define both sustainability and productionism in thier strictest sense and then attempted to find one way that the ideals have been combined in the past and another way that they could be combined in the future. The writing style was a bit uncomfortable to me, I’m used to the conversational style of blog posts or the strict style required in scientific writing, but here I’m talking about philosophy, economics, and policy. I hope you’ll put up with my stilted style and let me know what you think!

Economic incentives are key to making production agriculture more sustainable

Caricatures of sustainable agriculture and productionism hide nuance

There are as many definitions of sustainable agriculture as there are people who have considered the concept. All of the definitions, however, are based simply on the idea of agriculture that can be sustained over time. The length of time of sustainment necessary for a system to be called sustainable can be debated, but it is generally considered to be longer than sustainment time under productionist agricultural systems.  Strictly productionist systems, as the name implies, focus on increasing the units of agricultural product produced with little concern for externalities, such as the impact of the system on the surrounding environment. Similarly, there is no thought of the future effects of the farming methods or of how long such methods will be continue to provide high productivity. The caricature of productionism does not take into account farming methods that both aim to produce as much as possible and take steps to care for the land. One could similarly caricature sustainable farming as a system that does not take into account how much is produced on the land, which could result in declining amounts of food with increasing land under farming.

Once we step away from black and white views of agriculture and into Technicolor, it is easy to see just how shallow these caricatures are and how sustainable agriculture can exist and potentially thrive within a productionist paradigm and, conversely, how productionism can exist within sustainable agriculture. The question, then, is how to encourage a practical blending of the two extreme points of view that will result in real changes in farming. Sustainable agriculture, if it is to be economically sustainable, already incorporates some of the methods and ideas of productionism. Many of the necessary changes needed to make productionism more sustainable can be found within the existing system or just on the horizon. Most importantly, financial incentives to encourage desired practices must be enacted, or large-scale change is unlikely to occur.

Encouraging sustainability with financial incentivization under CRP

The Conservation Resource Program, or CRP, is an existing program that incentivizes sustainable practices on farms, and is seen by many as a success story of policy encouraging environmental protection on farmland. Established in the 1985 Farm Bill, CRP effectively rents environmentally sensitive land from land owners in 10 to 15 year contracts, paying amounts per acre that are equivalent to agricultural rental values. Land that is highly erodible, such as the land near streams, is considered environmentally sensitive under CRP. Restoration of these areas to native grasses or trees may be eligible for up to 50% cost sharing. Through the years, CRP has proven to be an effective means of encouraging wetland preservation on farmland, leading to increased populations of wetland wildlife and improved runoff water quality, among other benefits. CRP payments themselves are a benefit to farmers, but wildlife rehabilitation has also led to diversification of income when farmers allow for-fee hunting and fishing on their land (Ducks Unlimited, 2007).

While its value can not be denied, some of the particular details of CRP as it currently exists may be decreasing its value to farmers, meaning that it is not as effective as it could be at incentivizing protection of the most vulnerable wetlands. Some farmers find the certification process and specific requirements of CRP to be unreasonable or difficult to navigate. Many farmers have been pulling land out of CRP since corn prices went up in 2008; “CRP only pays 40% to 50% of the rent farmers can otherwise get for their lands” (McCombie, 2008). In addition to these specific problems, CRP was underfunded by the 2008 Farm Bill, leading to record corn harvests. “The 2008 Farm Bill lowered the cap on total number of acres allowed in the CRP program from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres (Schill, 2008).” While that leaves a significant number of acres in CRP, it also means that many environmentally sensitive acres will again be plowed and planted. Even if CRP acreage had remained constant or increased, it does not address the sustainability of practices on the cropland itself; additional incentives are necessary.

New horizons for financial incentivization of sustainability

The climate change legislation currently under consideration in the House and Senate (Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry respectively) has been hotly debated, as the potential effects on farmers and farming is not yet clear. Representatives of the Farm Bureau have advocated for their members to present their farmer’s caps with a sticker saying “Don’t CAP Our Future” to their senators and representatives (Galbraith, 2009). Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack has been working to allay fears, presenting data from a USDA economic analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill that shows compensation to farmers for carbon sequestration meeting or exceeding increased costs of farm inputs (USDA Newsroom, 2009). Unfortunately, the report focuses only on crop production, and does not address how increased feed prices will affect farmers in animal agriculture (Economic Research Service, 2009).

The Boxer-Kerry bill, the more recent of the two climate change bills, specifically outlines agricultural practices that would be eligible to receive carbon offset credits in section 773, such as reduction of nitrogen fertilizer use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fields and dietary modifications to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from animals (US Senate, 2009). Depending on how the offset credits are assigned value and distributed, this bill has great potential to provide farmers with strong incentives to move toward more sustainable practices, just as the CRP encouraged farmers to protect environmentally sensitive lands.

Productive and sustainable agriculture: A balance between holism and reductionism

The assignment of carbon credits for specific farming practices as outlined in the Boxer-Kerry bill is essentially a reductionist way of looking at agriculture: looking at individual parts of a complex system. Changing tillage practices or adding tree crops will contribute positively to the sustainability of a farm, but may not result in farm that is sustainable overall. More holistic, or systemic, changes are also necessary to truly achieve increased sustainability. Diversification can provide benefits greater than individual changes but is much more difficult to incentivize.

A shift from a few monocultured crops and intensive animal production to highly productive small grains and pastured animals spread across the landscape has great promise. “The benefits to be gained through diversification and integration include enhanced productivity with reduced requirements for purchased inputs, better environmental quality, and increased resilience to pests, bad weather, and poor market conditions (Liebman, et al, 2008).” Despite these benefits, we can not expect farmers to shift their entire production systems without financial incentives. Even if incentives were created, they would be fighting against market forces just as CRP is not adequate in the face of high corn prices. Creativity and a willingness to reach across traditional boundaries between productionist and sustainable agriculture will be needed to find new ways to encourage farmers to not only adopt individual practices that contribute to sustainability but also to make changes that aren’t so easy to incentivize.

Works cited

Ducks Unlimited (2007). The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

McCombie, Brian (10 July 2008). Fallow farmland proves unsustainable: Dane County farmers are walking away from land-conservation program. The Daily Page.

Schill, Suzanne (1 Aug 2008). USDA won’t release CRP acres penalty free. Biodiesel Magazine.

Galbraith, Kate (14 Oct 2009). Farm Bureau Aims to Kill Climate Bill. New York Times.

USDA Newsroom (2009). Vilsack to Discuss USDA Study in Testimony Before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

USDA Economic Research Service (22 July 2009). A preliminary analysis of the effects of HR 2454 on US agriculture.

US Senate (30 Sept 2009). S. 1733 To create clean energy jobs, promote energy independence, reduce global warming pollution, and transition to a clean energy economy. (Kerry-Boxer)

Liebman, Matt et al. (3 Apr 2008). Sustainable Agriculture in the United States: Maturation and New Directions. Sus Ag 610 Course Materials.