Going Green

Monday, August 27, 2007

Farming vs. Environment

Is modern agriculture detrimental to the environment? Probably, but less so than most other land uses. However, it has improved dramatically in this area from what it was thirty to fifty years ago.

How has it improved?

1. Low-tillage farming methods have reduced moisture loss, reduced soil erosion, reduced fuel consumption, and left crop residue on land through the winter months which is the period that is most difficult for wildlife in terms of food availability.

2. Improved crop varieties and production practices have increased the production per acre. This means that we grow more on less acres of land. As population continues to increase, this will become increasingly important.

3. Several government programs have created incentives to move marginal land from crop production to other purposes. One of the primary mechanisms for this has been the Conservation Reserve Program by which the Federal Government pays a lease to farmers to convert highly erosive land to grassland or forest. Approximately 39 million acres are currently enrolled in this program that were once farmland. These lands now provide a large reservoir of wildlife.

4. New crop varieties have been developed that are resistant to primary pests, thus reducing the need for pesticide application.

5. New crop varieties have been developed that allow the application of broadcast herbicides that effectively control invasive species that limit productivity of the desired species. This actually reduces the amount of herbicide applied relative to past practices. It also reduces the number of trips the farmer must make over the land for plowing, thus reducing the amount of fuel used in weed control.

Some fallacies:

1. The amount of cropland utilized would be reduced by elimination of animals as a food source. In fact, a large portion of animal feed, especially for cattle, is from the utilization of crop residues or of low-productivity land. Most grassland is poor farmland. Corn stubble, cotton burrs, cottonseed hulls, distillers grains (leftover from the production of ethanol), and other food crop bi-products are utilized for cattle feed.

2. The idea proposed by some is that crop production used as animal feed is unnecessary and could be eliminated, thus freeing land for human food production. In the United States, we continue to have a significant reservoir of land that is under-utilized. Government programs today artificially restrict land use by farmers. This is to create a level of price support for their produce. They are competing against government subsidized farming in South America, Australia, and Canada. The structure of such programs is to create a level of national security by maintaining our food production infrastructure rather than allowing our farmers to go out of business and creating undue dependence on foreign food sources. This is part of a “cheap food” policy that allows American consumers to spend a smaller portion of their income on food than any other country in the world.

Other thoughts:

One of the most significant factors to impact food production and the environment in the past 30-50 years is urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is caused by the desire of people who have the economic means to do so, to leave the city proper where they work, and move to the country. This is due to the perception, which I believe to be fact, that the suburban or rural quality of life is higher than the urban quality of life. This trend increases the use of fossil fuel for transportation, removes land from agricultural productivity, removes land from wildlife and recreational use, and creates infrastructure problems for utilities, garbage, zoning, and other basic services. To truly make a positive impact on the environment, we must examine all facets of land use – not just farming.

Finally, farmers depend upon the productivity of their land to remain in business. The successful ones are good stewards of the resources that are in their care. It is in their best interest to take care of the land.


bigwhitehat said...

I find it hard to blame any land use for the problems frequently assigned to farming and sprawl. I think it is very arrogant to believe that man can have that much of an impact on nature.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in crop rotation and many things that help us be better stewards. I just don't think our impact is much bigger than erosion, pollution and invasive importation.

Panhandle Poet said...

BWH: I suspect we are pretty much in agreement on the issue. In no way do I believe that humans are responsible for global warming. I do think we are likely in the early stages of a periodic natural warming period for the earth.

As to the impact on the environment -- I think the Dust Bowl was partially a result of man's poor soil stewardship. I think silting of creeks and estuaries are man-made in many cases. I think that pesticides and fertilizers in water are man-caused. I think smog is caused by man's activities. I think paving over the urban environment with asphalt and concrete contributes to flooding. Why did the American Bison virtually disappear in the 1800's? What happened to cod fishing? I absolutely believe that man and his activities sometimes have a negative impact on our environment. However, I firmly believe in the resiliency of God's creation that we call earth. I also believe that he gave us the responsibility to be good stewards of what he put us in charge. Stewards are caretakers who manage, use, and make productive -- they are not preservationists. Farmers for the most part are excellent stewards of the land. As we learn more about the impact of our activities we can become even better stewards.

Anonymous said...

Look there are animals that are raised on grasslands in the US. But many, many (I think most most) of the food given to pigs, cattle and chickens in the US is CORN and SOY based. If we eliminated animals as a food source, we would lose some of the acreage currently used for the small percentage of grass-fed animals, but we would gain the acreage of the corn and soy used to feed the non-grass-fed animals. That would be a huge net gain. I agree that we would do even BETTER if we radically reduced animals to those that could be grass-fed, rather than eliminating food-animals entirely. But I think eliminating food animals entirely would give a net gain to acreage devoted to feeding humans.

Second you say "Finally, farmers depend upon the productivity of their land to remain in business. The successful ones are good stewards of the resources that are in their care. It is in their best interest to take care of the land." But as you yourself point out in this post this isn't entirely true. Farmers rely on a combination of their land + government support to remain in business. If government policy gives them an incentive to do something bad for the land, and they will gain more from the government by doing it than they will lose in terms of the productivity of the land by doing it, then the ones that stay in business will most often be the ones willing to sacrifice their land for the sake of government policy. But government policies HAVE encouraged farmers to do all kinds of bad things to the land for a long time. There are some good stewards still in business. But many farmers are terrible stewards precisely because the government PAYS them to be bad stewards. That's why its so important to pass farm bills that encourage good stewardship rather than ones that encourage poor stewardship.
-Brian M.

Panhandle Poet said...

Brian: I think first I would ask you -- If the corn and soybeans currently being fed to livestock were no longer fed to livestock, what would be done with them? I don't see us shipping it to the Sudan or some other area of the globe where people are starving. I don't see that acreage being converted to crops for human consumption. The corn at least could be used for ethanol production once the capacity to distill it is in place. The best use for the distillers grains (which are a bi-product of ethanol)is as animal feed. If the acreage is converted to human food crops are you willing to pay to have it shipped where it is needed? Would it be better that the farmer go out of business? What about national security issues? -- i.e. a secure domestic food supply. The livestock market is relatively free in the U.S. Farm subsidies are targeted primarily at grains and other commodities. With the booming ethanol market, most of those subsidies are being shifted from the farmer to the fuel blenders in the form of tax credits for ethanol substitution. That makes the ag commoditiy market much more dependent on the pure market influences of Supply and Demand. If demand for non-meat food items increased relative to livestock feed items there would be a market induced shift in production practices.

If we shifted livestock feed acres to human food products today, it would all rot in the fields or in a government warehouse either in this country or in some other country.

Charles said...

This is a constant battle in Florida. We grow 280 crops in the state and are the primary source for winter vegetables in the United States. Yet, we are under constant attack by environmental enthusiasts (I don't use the term 'environmentalists' as most do not have formal study in this area). Their ultimate goal seems to be for the state to buy up the farm land and to remove it off of the tax roles for their benefit. I'm not sure about Texas or other states but Florida has been a poor steward of the land for the land in its posession now! Exotics are abundant and the care is minimal. The best steward is an agriculturalist (farmer) and with Best Management Practices; he is doing a better job each day at growing a product that is safe, affordable and abundant for the consumer.

Charlie Shinn

Panhandle Poet said...

Charles: We have a mixed bag here in Texas. I am concerned about urban sprawl enveloping prime agricultural land. For the most part the farmers and ranchers have been good stewards of the land. Developers on the other hand....