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How can we measure, track and encourage sustainability in agriculture?
By Dr. Margaret M. Zeigler, Executive Director, Global Harvest Initiative
On Thursday, November 19, I was honored to share a keynote speech in Minneapolis at the Sustainable Agriculture Summit, convened jointly by Field to Market and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Over 200 organizations comprised of farmers, dairy producers, cooperative members, food processors and retailers, along with leaders from federal and state government gathered to assess progress towards meeting a local and global challenge: How can we measure, track and encourage sustainability in agriculture?
Today many American consumers want to be sure that their food and agriculture products are more environmentally friendly. Many producers proclaim their products and production methods are “sustainable.” Yet there are few common definitions of what this actually means, and even fewer joint efforts to adopt common data standards for measuring and tracking progress in reducing the environmental footprint of food production.
But Field to Market and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy have started on the path to define and measure sustainability in row crop and dairy production in the United States, and the Summit provided a platform for dialogue and information sharing to advance and communicate recent progress.
What are local solutions for global challenges in agricultural sustainability?
In the row crop industry, the Field to Market Fieldprint® Calculator is recognized as a gold-standard measurement and tracking tool, enabling farmers to measure and report how their production of crops such as cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans is becoming more sustainable. The Calculator estimates field level performance on conservation practices, soil carbon retention, irrigation water and energy use, water quality and on greenhouse gas emissions.
The Calculator is a free and confidential tool that is simple to use and that graphically represents the farmer’s unique operation. It helps farmers visualize and assess how efficiencies and environmental impacts fluctuate based on various management decisions. Farmers can also compare their performance against local, state and national averages developed using publically available data. The Calculator uses datasets and methodologies developed by multiple sources, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.
For example, dramatic increases in U.S. cotton productivity have occurred since the 1980s. While cotton yield has increased by 55 percent overall during this time, acres of land used per pound of cotton produced declined by 30 percent; total tons of soil erosion per pound of cotton produced declined by 68 percent; irrigation water per pound of cotton produced declined by 75 percent; energy use per pound of cotton produced declined by 31 percent; and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) per pound of cotton produced declined by 22 percent.
Through a combination of conservation practices and innovation technologies, farmers in the United States are showing they are reducing agriculture’s impact on water and soil and reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions – even as they boost production. The Global Harvest Initiative’s 2015 GAP Report® (Global Agricultural Productivity Report®): Building Sustainable Breadbaskets featured the work of Field to Market and the Fieldprint® Calculator results that trace productivity of cotton farming in the United States. Other crop calculator results can be found on the Field to Market website.
The Fieldprint® Calculator for row crops and other tools in the dairy industry help farmers develop plans and track progress in their sustainability efforts, as well as communicate success and identify areas requiring improvement—and provide local solutions for global challenges, serving as excellent models for sustainability measurement in agriculture.