Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sustainability's Life Blood: Transparent Data

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Data can be a funny thing. With it, we can begin to get an objective picture of a problem or a solution. But how clear that picture is depends on the quality of the data and the full transparency of its assumptions and error range. Without data to show the true progress, complexities and trade-offs surrounding a given choice, people put forward their own beliefs about which practices are superior. It is not just nature that abhors a vacuum, people do to! These beliefs have a funny way of growing stronger and becoming part of the identity of those who espouse them; dangerously inviting people to promote and believe their own biases rather than being open to where the facts may lead. Because these beliefs become interwoven with a person's identity, trying to challenge these beliefs with fact is often interpreted as a personal attack. The result is a an atmosphere that dampens or even prevents the objective search for truth in favor of protecting people's feelings.

Enter a group of farmers who are developing data sets on nutrient management, crop protection and yield enhancement practices that are specific to their own farms and fully transparent (in the aggregate). Called the On-Farm Network, this effort is helping farmers to more efficiently use fertilizer (among other inputs) which helps prevent non-point source runoff that contributes to water quality problems and also saves the farmer money since fertilizer is expensive and using it more precisely means less likelihood of over-application. Farmer participants are applying scientific inquiry on their own lands so they are not only developing farm-specific data which will enable them to make better decisions for their triple bottom line (profit, people, planet), they are also presenting a very helpful model for navigating the often emotionally fraught process of assessing sustainability. While this is not their goal, it can be an outcome nonetheless.

I spent yesterday in central Iowa at the 2011 On-Farm Network conference which featured presentations from soil scientists and the network's environmentalist partner who have conducted trials on farmer participants lands looking at a range of practices that together help comprise something called adaptive management. (Check out some of the webinars from the 2010 conference by clicking here.)

The On-Farm Network approach is based on an understanding that research into things like nutrient management and pest control is only as good as the inputs assumed and that because of the high variability involved in soils, farm practices and weather; state-prescribed averages rarely hit the mark on individual farms.

The process usually involves farmers signing up to be part of a trial on a given practice, like applying a certain amount of hog manure at a certain time of the year, say Spring to see if results are better than the general prescribed state average they usually follow. Farmers will conduct this test practice on a 3 strips within one of their fields. At the end of harvest, soil and plant tests are done, aerial images evaluated and yield differences measured to detect change from the farmers usual practice (done on the rest of the field). To get a better understanding of this process, take a look below at a list of steps they go through as part of testing nutrient management for corn:
  1. Evaluate the current practice (example: corn stalk test for existing nitrogen levels)
  2. Evaluate uniformity of application of existing practice
  3. Evaluate rate of current nitrogen or manure application
  4. Evaluate the alternative or test practice
  5. Evaluate the rate of the alternative practice (strip trials in the field)
  6. Evaluate the potential for spatial variation
  7. Evaluate the overall difference between current and alternative practice
The On-Farm Network started as a project of the Iowa Soybean Association to test out different farming practices and their effects on farm profitability and the environment. Key to the effort's success has been the network's partnerships. The network benefits from the participation of numerous soil scientists and nutrient management experts from a multiple universities that conduct the research. Importantly, the network also has a partner from the environmental community -- gaining technical expertise, environmental credibility and funding from its partner Environmental Defense Fund.

This impressive network of farmers has spread from Iowa to now include the states of Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina and Virginia.

What's really interesting about the On-Farm Network example is that it demonstrates so clearly that the economic bottom line and environmental protection are often directly linked in farming. Since this is a natural resource business, protection of the environment becomes part of protecting the underlying business assets: the land, water, air -- all of which need to be in long-term good condition to support continuous sustainable growth.

Too often, proponents of sustainability want to make the case that profit leads to environmental degradation. While that may be true in some sectors, it is not as true in farming. For example, if a farmer cares only about this year or next year's harvest and doesn't take proper care of the land, he/she will pay dearly for that in lost yield over time as the land is less able to perform. The most successful farmers have long realized that their profitability is directly tied to the quality of the resources they manage and therefore have both emotional (family-owned land) and economic incentives to care for it well.

The public, is often unaware of this dynamic. When farmers are called "corporate" and "industrial" by some environmental activists, the intended implication is that large, efficient farms can't be a good thing precisely because they are big. I used to angrily feel that these aspersions were made by people who knew better but had an agenda to push. With more experience and thought, I've come to understand that people who hold this point of view, usually do so because they have NO experience with farming beyond the local farmers market which they adore. They are merely applying what they think they know about corporate corruption to all businesses of any size without understanding the intense difference that exists when your businesses is the land.

As the On-Farm website notes:
"Being a part of this proactive approach to environmentalism gives growers solid scientific data they can use to demonstrate that they are managing their resources properly and in a way that minimizes negative environmental impact."
Efforts like this are critical for farmers to save money, for improving one of the most challenging water quality challenges the U.S. faces and for setting the right tone on sustainability assessment. The data this process is uncovering is showing just how difficult it is to find the right balance of which fertilizer or manure type to use and when to apply it because of the complexities and multiple weather-related variables involved in how nitrogen breaks down in the environment.

For those who want to apply simplistic prescriptions or certifications of sustainability on complex issues like this, the On-Farm data shows just how detrimental to the environment that approach can be. Only by doing careful, direct research have farmers found better ways to target their nutrient use. These practices are leading to overall reductions in the use of too much nitrogen that ends up running off into waterbodies. Because of the massive variability in conditions (soil, weather) from one farm to the next, true sustainability requires a targeted, site-specific approach that often doesn't translate well into broad sustainability score which must make simple assumptions about complex issues.

The desire for greater sustainability by the public is a good thing, but the attempt to slap a "sustainable" or "unsustainable" label on highly variable systems like growing food can actually undermine the stated goals.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Efficient, Intensive Farms Good for Climate?

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

My husband often scoffs when he hears people talk about certain energy-saving home improvements. For example: putting an expensive solar array on their homes. It’s not that he isn’t environmentally minded; ask him and he’ll say something like most of their energy bill is from climate control. If they have big energy bills now, trying to heat with solar will be like trying to heat a bus kiosk with a curling iron. He’ll then go on to bemoan the fact that caulk isn’t sexy enough for some people.

His spirit was vindicated when I found a report by McKinsey and Company that draws a Global Greenhouse Gasses Abatement Cost Curve for various ways the world could reduce its emissions. The graphic shows there are many things society is aware of that will reduce the amount of emissions (like caulking) without impacting quality of life (like turning down the heat in winter, which he also does). It shows that there are many emissions-reducing things out there that more than pay for themselves --- and there are things that are downright expensive. We’re not talking “capital intensive” here; many things with high upfront costs will pay for themselves quite soon, and keep on paying for themselves.

The report makes mention that it is not interested in the debate about climate change or its impacts. It remains officially agnostic about that.

To give you a sense of the sorts of things that are on the extremes of the Cost Curve, the things that remove the most tons of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere per buck spent are: more efficient lighting, electronics, retrofitting insulation (caulk!) and climate control systems ---- while the things that remove very little per dollar spent are: various power plant carbon capture technological retrofits which don’t come anywhere near paying for themselves, and alternative energy (like solar!). The McKinsey report created the cost curve because the writers feel that by focusing on first implementing the measures that are productive in themselves (by saving money) we can then focus on things that actually cost more than they save, like solar arrays.

So, how does this all apply to agriculture? Well, McKinsey has identified agriculture as one of three major areas where major reductions in emissions can total 38 Gigatons CO2 equivalent per year in 2030 relative to annual “business as usual” emissions of 70 Gigatons CO2 equivalent per year.

Some of these agricultural changes will be expensive to society; some will actually save society money, or, in other words, make society wealthier.

What are the changes we should be making right now to both reduce our emissions and save money? According to the McKinsey report the biggest bang for our buck would be Better Cropland Nutrient Management followed by better Tillage and Residue Management. Some large-scale farmers are already far ahead of others with these best practices, and they are often rewarded with more profit. Unfortunately, because we currently don't have a way to rate the sustainability of commodities, there's no way to know if the corn, wheat or soy in your processed food is grown in this very responsible way. Unless you know farming pretty well, you may not realize that large-scale farmers are doing many of these types of emission saving practices that also provide water quality and quantity savings, expand wildlife habitat and increase soil fertility over time.

Some of the biggest ag emissions reducing costs to society are reducing the amount of land converted to intensive agriculture* and the related various ways that land can be taken out of agricultural use and turned back into bog, grassland and forest. Needless to say, agriculture will need to squeeze as much food out of an acre as possible to take land out of production, since the trend, especially in places like South America, has been putting new land into production. Here again, the average consumer is often unaware of the link between overall global environmental preservation and intensive, efficient U.S. production on existing farmland.

It’s a really neat report. Just about everything you need to know about its 189 pages is summed up in the cost-curve chart. The recommendations on agriculture start on page 123.You can easily down load the full report by clicking here.

*It should be noted that land that has already been converted to intensive agriculture does not seem to have any continuing adverse effects after the first years, i.e., turning prairie into farmland has some negative effects initially, but keeping the land non-prairie does not.

Bottom line: spread the word that some key practices used by efficient and successful U.S. farmers can be a big part of reducing GHG emissions in some of the most cost effective ways possible. The more that large, efficient farms stay highly productive here, the less new land will be converted into new farmland abroad -- something that creates high GHG emissions. And that's just a byproduct of producing some of the healthiest, most nutritious food on the planet!!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Shangri-La And A Hungry Planet

An opinion piece in the February 2nd Wall Street Journal recently caught my attention. It called for a re-start of the Green Revolution. Why?

The U.N.’s food price index has hit an all-time high. Food price hikes are widely understood to be a trigger of Egyptian upheavals in a country that imports a large share of its grain. Some blame Ben Bernanke. Some blame the Chinese for gobbling up too much of the world’s resources. Not enough attention is focused on the forces of stagnation loose in our world. Agricultural output has been falling behind population growth for almost two decades, and so has productivity.”

What does the author single out for blame for both the long term and short term effects? Mediterranean (a la Greece and Italy) style shielding of small-scale industry from competition in the form of now unsuccessful efforts to ban the use of gene splicing in alfalfa to protect organic farmers! The problem, I would argue, is bigger than that, but he makes a convincing case that such behavior is a part of the problem – a problem that is getting ever more frightening.

Now, the Green Revolution was the increase in mankind’s food security through the use of new technologies that included hybridized grains, infrastructure improvements, and, most especially, artificial inputs that are derived from fossil fuels. It was epitomized by the IR8 strain of rice that, with those artificial inputs, produced ten times the rice compared to rice grown from traditional efforts. Dubbed the “miracle rice”, IR8 brought India from the brink of famine to a new status as a major rice exporter.

What is termed the Green Revolution is really just a small part of a larger revolution that is still occurring: the Fossil Fuel Revolution. The Fossil Fuel Revolution has done a great deal to promote human rights, minority rights and child and animal welfare since the human and animal energies that formerly were a necessary input to virtually all human productivity have been replaced first by coal and later by oil and natural gas. How do I justify this theory? The fact that an unprecedented and extremely rapid rise in rights coincided with an equally unprecedented and rapid flowering of labor saving technology that enabled the developed world to free children first from cottage industry and later from the mills, mines and farms, putting them in school.

Coal was first used extensively in England. In 1700, 5/6 of all coal mined was in England. By the early 1800s, England passed the first laws limiting child labor and “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” the first such treatises, were published before the century was over. Just as coal saved the trees of Europe, the distillation of kerosene from petroleum in the 1850s* saved the whales . . . and, it turbocharged workers’ rights. Less than ten years later the United States would be fighting its biggest war in history over the legality of slavery, and by 1900 most of the world had abolished it. Coincidences? Perhaps. But follow the trajectory of labor rights, the shortening of the workweek, and the empowerment of women and minorities, and you will find the same clear correlation I have. Simply put, humans were freed from many of the most labor-intensive parts of life by fossil fuels and as a result, had the capacity for the change that eventually occurred. Eventually, even the horse was freed. If you have a better explanation, please let me know.

We tend to focus entirely on the bad elements of fossil fuels these days -- the pollution, even roping in the unsavory business practices of the Rockefellers and the Sheiks, while totally taking for granted all that we have because of fossil fuels. The Time, the Freedom, and the lack of Want. Meanwhile, we talk as if there existed viable full-scale replacements for fossil fuels when there are not. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking to reduce and replace our fossil fuels consumption; what it does mean is that fossil fuels should be given their due instead of thought of as Original Sin.

I'm not trying to say that fossil fuels have no problems. Too often in discussions about complex matters, advocates want to push the subject material into easily defined Black Hat and White Hat actors. Sure, there are trade-offs to using fossil fuels and we should continue to use technology to mitigate, reduce or replace them as we can. But it is technology that will enable the next phase of human development, not wishful thinking.

As often happens with us, two things have occurred because of fossil fuels bounty: 1. Huge population growth resulting from the benefits of the technology and the ability to grow substantially more food. We’ve become victims of our own success. 2. We don’t appreciate what we’ve got; in many ways the developed world’s middle class live much like the wealthy of centuries ago. Certainly a far larger percentage of people live in relative comfort than ever before.

Oh, and a lot of us are getting fat -- another luxury problem people didn't used to have.

But, America, we might have a problem. There are several corners of the intellectual world warning that we cannot rely as much as we have on fossil fuels. The Big Ideas out there are of course that we are changing the climate (for the worse) and that we will run out of fossil fuel.

If either of these ideas is true, we are in big trouble. Simply put, we are nowhere NEAR having the alternatives to our present food system. Talk of switching from annuals to perennials for our caloric base, moving to entirely non fossil fueled sources of nitrogen, and anything else, leaves a huge, scary deficit in the equation that equals the calories seven billion people need to survive, not to mention the three billion more people expected to be around by 2050.

But this I know for sure, meeting these challenges will come out of human ingenuity and the new technology that results -- just as it did with the development of fossil fuels and genetic engineering of seeds.

So, I am willing to meet both the environmental and the resources Malthusians half way; the costs may reach a crisis point. But I am not willing to seriously entertain a back-to-the-land “food democracy” of small-scale farmers the kind that populated the plains before the dust bowl, nor a return to a mythical “golden age of agriculture” where man lived “in harmony with nature” as potential solutions. Small organic farms as a food source for the masses were not only famously unreliable, the tilling necessary tended to make anything larger than a garden prone to significant erosion and environmental impact.

Some thinkers have focused on a very creative way to revolutionize agriculture: crossbreeding the annual crops we farm to survive with unproductive perennial varieties, or breed perennials until they get something as productive as wheat. This would solve a lot of our agricultural environmental problems (to which organic farming contributes), but because they are unwilling to use new genetic modification techniques, even the perennials proponents admit they will need decades before they reach a breakthrough.

Given that amount of time, other solutions may be developed first, or one or another Malthusian crisis may arrive. In the meantime, I’ll take the proven incremental productivity gains of GM crops and advances in fertilizer application and utilization. To denigrate the capacity of these technologies in light of no other readily available alternative is like those who demonize the oil industry -- but drive a car to the protest.

So, we don’t need a “new” Green Revolution, we just need to not abandon the one that is continuing in the present day. The most productivity gains are currently being made with gene splicing and more effective applications of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicides. These right now are the Low Hanging Fruit. We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- and too often sustainable agriculture proponents seem to take that approach.

So, who is against this? A lot of folks. They often think they are taking a holistic view of things, but their thinking is clouded by dreams of “food democracy,” and Paradise Refound. It may be true that large-scale agronomists will need to look more closely at how natural ecosystems flourish to lessen environmental impacts, but a return to the pre-dust bowl slogans of “Every Man A Landlord” would herald a disaster if followed through on. Why must the solution be to abandon technology which has made life freer, easier and given us the time to pursue things like literature, art and organics?

It is hard to debate seriously the facts with someone once they have got “religion.” One must wade through all sorts of high-minded platitudes, (“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings." says Masanobu Fukuoka) to confront them with the facts that demand some kind of realistic compromising “that sounds nice, how are we going to feed seven billion people with this philosophy?” Yet even then, there is never any guarantee you will get anywhere.

What I have learned from engaging in many discussions on these issues with folks that often disagree with me, is that context is incredibly important. If you can place the current set of circumstances in its proper context, and informed by facts that can be as close to objective as possible, you have a whole new opportunity to find some meeting of the minds.

Technology, whether it be in the form of a new fuel or a new seed, has been and will continue to be critical for meeting sustainability challenges. Turning our back on it out of some false sense of superiority or glorification of the past, would be a terrible mistake, especially in light of news that China, the world's largest wheat producer may be facing a major drought.

Let the progress in renewables continue, while we remember that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

*This liquid is the future wealth of the country, it's the wellbeing and prosperity of its inhabitants, it's a new source of income for the poor, and a new branch of industry which shall bear plentiful fruit. - Ignacy Ɓukasiewicz (1854)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Big Farm Philanthropy: A Secret that Shouldn't Be Kept!

Last week I was on a panel talking about agriculture, sustainability and the role of the commercial producer at the Tomorrow's Top Producer Seminar in Chicago. One of the points I and others made is that sustainability is a multi-faceted concept and includes the things that farmers do to care for their community and for communities far away as well as what they do to care for the land and the surrounding environment.

At the seminar, I heard about the Farmers Feeding the World campaign, which is a Farm Journal Foundation initiative that teams up with Heifer International to help impoverished families break the cycle of poverty by providing them with livestock, education/training and organizational development assistance. Their approach is summed up in the founder, Dan West's oft-used saying "Not a cup, but a cow," similar to the whole "teach a man to fish . . ." saying. The group provides poor populations with a gift of livestock as a means of creating personal wealth for their family and ultimately, their community as they are able to expand their small farm business.

This effort is indeed a noble one - being supported by many large-scale and small scale farmers who no doubt, will not get a press release passed around explaining the good they are enabling. I know that is not why they are doing it -- and the farm culture tends to generally frown upon putting out too much publicity or "bragging" about these things, but it is important for the public to know that today's large-scale, efficient agricultural operators are not only providing us with a healthy and abundant supply of food -- but they are also in many cases, deeply connected in the process of helping the less fortunate both here and around the world.

Even if you do hear about the occasional big campaign like the one I just described, chances are you won't hear about the amazing individual efforts that farmers have enacted as policy on their farms. I only know about some of these actions because I work with a group of amazing farmers on sustainability issues -- and in the process of cataloging what it is they do that contributes to their overall sustainability, I have learned a great deal.

Take for example, one of the farm operations I work with that has a policy to provide college scholarships for all the children of their employees who have been with them for 5 years or longer. Or the operation that gives generously to the local rural hospital and community college enabling the creation of a heli-pad with life flight service to the surrounding rural areas and the ability for the community college to continue serving as a rural training outpost. Then there are the farmers I know that serve as members of the school board, donate to their county fairs and the local school projects every year, provide scholarships for ag-related careers and have a "buy local when possible" policy in place. These folks are large-scale agricultural producers -- and their success means the community around them succeeds too.

Too often, there seems to be a default assumption by those championing the cause 0f the environment, that small must always be better and big is akin to bad. I challenge my friends who think that way to get to know some of these people and what they are doing for their community. You might just find that the same skills that make these folks successful businesspeople are also being used quietly to help spur rural community investment and wellness.

I'm not trying to say that all large farms are always model community supporters. There are always good and bad actors in all areas of life. But more often than not, large-scale or commercial ag producers are very invested in their communities because they know that this is both smart business as well as the right thing to do. Large scale producers grew up in these small towns and have a lot to do with why many rural areas are still able to exist.

When thinking about what makes agriculture sustainable, please remember the charitable and community focused support that the ag industry has a long history of providing.