Guest Commentary: The Challenge of Going Beyond Sustainability

April 27, 2013 06:16 AM
William J Richards

Healthy returns to the land are not enough. Healthy institutions and policies are critical.

By William J. Richards

If we’re going to feed and fuel an estimated 9 billion people by 2050 without degrading our environment, U.S. leadership is critical and time is short. Simply achieving "sustainability" is not good enough. We must have the research, technology and production practices to go beyond sustainability. Achieving this goal will require a new vision for U.S. agriculture, forestry and conservation. Solutions from the Land,, is a serious effort to begin building that vision.

Solutions from the Land recently released a report, "Developing a New Vision for U.S. Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation," that articulates the big picture, documenting the current state of land use and providing a vision for the 21st century. I congratulate the team and the sponsors for an excellent report. But, as a farmer and a former chief of USDA’s Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service, I’d like to join in with some "here and now" opinions.

If we are to achieve and surpass sustainability we must:

  • improve and enhance our soils;
  • improve and expand our current water resources;
  • provide better habitat for wildlife;
  • provide food and fuel to our citizens and exports to the world;
  • provide society with numerous ecosystem benefits, including clean air and water; and
  • protect the environment.

It starts with soil. First and foremost we must remember that productivity begins with the soil—maintaining and enhancing its health is key to sustainable land use. For centuries, technology and global expansion of cropland has meant that agriculture’s productive capacity has almost always exceeded the demand for food and fiber.

Declining prices for commodities and low rates of return to the land contributed to a lack of investment in soil conservation until the Dust Bowl led the federal government to begin a concerted soil conservation effort with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service in 1935.

While the role of federal, state and local governments is important, so are healthy rates of return to the land. In this context, renewable energy plays a vital role and can be the "bridge" to develop and enhance our soil and resource base. We all know what renewable energy has done for the Corn Belt and the ag economy. But corn is food, and the world needs food. We must continue the research and development of cellulosic ethanol and find ways to better use biomass from our fields and forests.

Accountability forward. Healthy returns to the land alone are not enough to take us beyond sustain-ability in the future. Healthy institutions and policies are also critical.

The Solutions from the Land report emphasizes the need for metrics to measure environmental performance. As farmers, we need a certification system that identifies and rewards producers for environmental stewardship. Australia does this well with Landcare. Our Conservation Security Program could offer performance-based benefits. But in order to reward producers for changes and improvements, we need to do a better job of measuring key indicators of sustainability such as air quality, water quality and biodiversity.

Conservation compliance, introduced in the Food Security Act of 1985, encouraged us to adopt conservation tillage, no-till and other practices that have greatly reduced erosion and improved economic returns. Compliance is only a condition of eligibility for USDA program benefits, not a legal requirement. If federal farm policy shifts away from commodity programs toward crop
insurance programs not covered by conservation compliance, which appears likely, the incentives for continued investment in conservation will be reduced.

Crop insurance is voluntary and farmers do pay premiums, but the premiums are significantly less thanks to federal subsidies. If we, as farmers, are to receive the extra benefits, paid with tax dollars, then we should meet conservation standards. I know this is a controversial issue, but we need to be part of the dialogue. Conservation compliance is not regulation, it’s regulation prevention.

Finally, I believe the most important farm "subsidy" I’ve received was an education at a land-grant university—The Ohio State University. The research, Extension and education system is what made and keeps U.S. agriculture the envy of the world. As cited in the Solutions from the Land report, research, Extension and education should be a top priority if we want to go beyond sustainability in the 21st century.

William J. Richards is an Ohio farmer who served as chief of the USDA Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service) from 1990 to 1993.

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