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RSS By: Sara Hessenflow Harper,

Sara is the Director of Sustainability & Supply-Chain Solutions for Vela Environmental, a division of Kennedy and Coe, LLC where she leads the firm's CSO On-Demand Services.  This blog explores the topic of agricultural sustainability -- including the market forces and hidden drivers propelling it from a pragmatic and solutions-oriented point of view.  Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAgViews expressed are solely those of Sara Harper.

A New Perspective on Sustainable Agriculture

Oct 13, 2011

Hello and welcome to a blog designed to explore the issue of sustainable agriculture from a pragmatic perspective. 

I have worked at the intersection of agricultural and environmental policy for more than ten years now.  (You can check out my background by clicking here.)  Never have I encountered someone who thinks that agriculture should be conducted in an unsustainable way.  Whether you care about the agricultural industry as a way of life and livelihood for your family – or you care about our ability to have continued access to a safe, abundant and affordable food supply, people across the political spectrum want a food system that can meet our needs now without compromising those of future generations.  Yet, if you mention the term "sustainable agriculture" there is often an immediate dividing up into camps with each side doubting the good intent of the other toward meeting this common goal.

I have had the unique experience of being able to work both for a conservative U.S. Senator on ag and environmental policy as well as within a major national environmental organization on this topic.  Much of my work has focused on trying to build bridges and encourage select, strategic partnerships between two communities that often view each other with deep suspicion (to put it politely).


I have seen time and again how environmental policy debates and discussions end in a stalemate because environmentalists often let the perfect the enemy of the good and those suspicious of environmentalists use this strategic flaw as a reason to disengage – or worse, deny that there are real environmental problems at times.

It is this process that has turned concepts like sustainability into a partisan or ideologically divisive term rather than what it really is: an aspiration that most all of us share but disagree at times, on how to get there.  

What is refreshing, and often under-reported, is that there is a growing trend -- driven largely by the fact that there will be 3 billion more people to feed within the next 40 years, to both expand the definition of what it means to be a sustainable agricultural producer to include the need to feed all these people without damaging our planet and a willingness on the part of some environmental groups to re-consider the value of things like efficiency and genetically-enhanced seeds, for example. 

As a result of the coming global population bulge, food retailers and processors are increasingly studying how best to source the products they sell as a means of making sure they have access to a secure and reliable supply chain in the future and as a means of meeting increasing consumer interest in how and where their food is grown. (For a great overview of "green shopper" trends, check out the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Deloitte report by clicking here.)

This is a private market trend that has the potential to re-shape much of the agricultural sector.  Depending on how sustainability is defined and measured – and how widely these new metrics get adopted, things like how efficiently your crop used nitrogen fertilizer could become as important of a metric as how much moisture is in your corn when it is time to make the sale.

I started this blog because the topic of agricultural sustainability is both fascinating and will likely have a large impact on an industry I love.  I’m hoping this can be a forum for sharing information on emerging trends, discussing what it means to broaden the sustainable agriculture definition and busting some myths along the way. 

I’m not claiming to be completely impartial, but I will always strive to tie my assertions to science and the direct experience of the many amazing farmers I’m privileged to work with.  I’m looking forward to your comments and a great, ongoing discussion!


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COMMENTS (2 Comments)

Tim Gieseke - MN
Yes, I agree that most all knowledgeable farmers agree that building soil carbon is good and that providing nutrients to the plant when the plant needs it makes a lot of sense. But as risk management tools make the business flatter, allowing for 10-15K acre enterprises, it forces the ag community to manage for production resources, not natural resources, especially as input costs remain affordable relative to crop insurance baseline rates. We have made farming so pragmatic, that it appears to be the epitome of sustainability. There is no better designed political white horse than agriculture's chant to feed the world - and whether the price of corn is $3 or $8, N $100 or $1000/ton we are going to ride that white horse and deliver that corn to all that can afford it.
7:48 PM Oct 16th
All political persuasions agree..Building soil carbon is Good. This unifying principle can lead to farmers becoming soil sink bankers, as Australia has with their Carbon Farming Initiative. Paying farmer who do well while doing good.

What we can do now with "off the shelf" technology, what I proposed at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), to the EPA chiefs of North America.

The most cited soil scientist in the world, Dr. Rattan Lal at OSU, was impressed with this talk, commending me on conceptualizing & articulating the concept.

Bellow the opening & closing text. A Report on my talk at CEC, and complete text & links are here:

The Establishment of Soil Carbon as the Universal Measure of Sustainability

The Paleoclimate Record shows agricultural-geo-engineering is responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. The unintended consequence, the flowering of our civilization. Our science has now realized these consequences and has developed a more encompassing wisdom. Wise land management, afforestation and the thermal conversion of biomass can build back our soil carbon. Pyrolysis, Gasification and Hydro-Thermal Carbonization are known biofuel technologies, What is new are the concomitant benefits of biochars for Soil Carbon Sequestration; building soil biodiversity & nitrogen efficiency, for in situ remediation of toxic agents, and, as a feed supplement cutting the carbon foot print of livestock. Modern systems are closed-loop with no significant emissions. The general life cycle analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1 ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative.

Beyond Rectifying the Carbon Cycle;
Biochar systems Integrate nutrient management, serving the same healing function for the Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles.
The Agricultural Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards are the royal road for the GHG Mitigation;

The Bio-Refining Technologies to Harvest Carbon.
The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running all around us, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet, conversion reactors are the only infrastructure we need to build out. Carbon, as the center of life, has high value to recapitalize our soils. Yielding nutrient dense foods and Biofuels, Paying Premiums of pollution abatement and toxic remediation and the growing Dividend created by the increasing biomass of a thriving soil community.

Since we have filled the air,
filling the seas to full,
soil is the only beneficial place left.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Thanks for your efforts,

Erich J. Knight
Chairman; Markets and Business Committee
2010 US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University​
8:43 PM Oct 14th

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