New Organization Working To Quantify Sustainable Agriculture

Pilot program allows growers in four states to assess their practices.

Published on: Feb 29, 2008

Just what exactly is sustainable agriculture and how do you measure it? A new coalition of growers, conservation organizations and companies throughout the ag supply chain are seeking to do just that through an index that will measure and track the impact of agriculture in terms of environmental sustainability. The coalition was formed in response to growing consumer and retailer awareness (or concern) for agricultural practices that may impact the environment.

As part of that project, growers in four states – Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa and Texas – will also have the opportunity to utilize a Web-based assessment tool for environmental sustainability. The coalition plans to expand the offering to growers in all states in the fall. It allows grower to evaluate individual operations against the industry-wide index.

"It is confidential and designed for the benefit of the land owner," explains John Hoffman, president of the American Soybean Association and farmer from Iowa. ASA is one of 24 participants in the initiative organized and facilitated by The Keystone Center, a non-profit dedicated to developing collaborative solutions to societal issues.

"The assessment tool allows growers to look at their parcels of land, through a password secure Web site, and judge their environmental progress. It will also provide links to programs, such as the watershed program, and university information that will help them improve performance systems on their farms." Hoffman adds. "I'm sure growers are going to learn something new and this index will help them quantify and demonstrate their care for the environment."

The index is beginning to take shape and the coalition has started by analyzing national resources, such as land, topsoil, water use and quality, and key crop production inputs, like energy, plant, nutrients and crop production products in U.S. corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat.

"This initiative's primary objective is identifying practices for increasing production
agriculture's sustainability with a focus on results rather than agendas," explains Sarah Stokes Alexander, director of sustainability and leadership programs for The Keystone Center.

"Agriculture has a good story to tell. Soybeans have witnessed long-term sustained growth, while corn and cotton have also seen gains over the past 10 years," Hoffman explains. "New technologies and better plant genetics have helped us increase yields and reduce trips over the field for tillage, weed and insect control."

Agriculture's ability to produce more food on less acres will become increasingly important as the world's increasing population will require producers to double food production by 2050, according to Tom West of Pioneer, another partner in the coalition.

"This will give us a roadmap to track progress and identify opportunities to improve sustainability. It is our hope that consumers and food retailers will find value in this."

Ron Litterer, president of the National Corn Growers Association (another partner), says fertilizer and pesticide use per unit of production have declined. "Unfortunately many consumers don't know that. Most producers are good stewards of the land and they take it very seriously. The index will help us quantify and demonstrate our care for the environment."

More than 99% of world's food supply comes from intensive agriculture, West points out. "If we're going to improve our footprint, we will need to improve intensive agriculture. There is also another 99% percent (figure) and that's those that don't live on a farm or are involved with food production. We need to educate consumers on where their food comes from and connect them with farm practices."

For more information, please contact Sarah Alexander at 970-513-5846 or salexander@keystone.org or visit The Keystone Center Web site at http://www.keystone.org.