Corn growers say Ceres sustainability study offers nothing new
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WASHINGTON, June 18, 2014 -- A study contending that U.S. corn production is threatened by climate change, unsustainable water use and inefficient and damaging fertilizer practices fails in its intent “by not seriously consulting those that actually produce corn,” says the president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).
“One would think that an organization developing a report on corn production would seek input from more than a single farmer, who was more than outnumbered by other reviewers,” said Martin Barbre, criticizing the methodology used by Ceres, a sustainability advocacy group, in putting together “Water and Climate Risks Facing U.S. Corn Production.”
Ceres makes it clear that its report aims to encourage companies that buy U.S. corn - including food processors and the manufacturers of household products - the ammunition to pressure agricultural producers to adopt more sustainable practices.
But Barbre, who says the Ceres study is similar to other analyses that offer “nothing new,” contends that farmers are central to improvements in the nation's sustainable corn supply. He says members of his organization “are the ones continually promoting improved management practices that benefit the environment, rural communities and farmers' bottom lines as a means to stay in business.”
The NCGA president said the report's assertion that all or most of the blame for the Gulf of Mexico dead zone - a large, oxygen-deprived area at the mouth of the Mississippi River that environmentalists say comes mostly from agricultural runoff - is not supported by credible science.
Barbre concedes that the report's statistical assessment of irrigated corn is “substantial,” but dated. “The data cited is more than six years old,” he says, adding that the report fails to acknowledge “that nearly nine in 10 corn acres grow with only the benefit of natural rainfall, without any irrigation.”
Barbre says the report is unbalanced, often emphasizing negative perceptions. “By stating ‘Twenty-two percent of irrigated corn acres still employ inefficient flood or furrow irrigation methods,' the report under-emphasizes the efforts on the other 78 percent of U.S. corn acres (under irrigation),” he says.
The NCGA executive also said that while the Ceres analysis cites practices such as cover-cropping and the development of buffer strips to address fertilizer run-off, it does not acknowledge “efforts such as the Soil Health Partnership and NCGA, state organization and local group initiatives to identify, test, measure management practices (including cover crops, conservation tillage and advanced nutrient management) and accelerate grower adoption of these under-researched practices,” techniques that many farmers already incorporate “as appropriate to field conditions to improve sustainability.”
He also cites NCGA ‘s work as a member of the National Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the development of a roadmap of farm management systems “that help producers to achieve verifiable sustainability outcomes, improve the environmental services and productivity of their farms, improve rural communities and satisfy performance expectations of the value chain.”
The Nebraska Corn Board, which promotes the commodity in a state that has a number of counties studied and included in the Ceres report, countered the study's finding by insisting that farmers there are growing their crops sustainably. Board officials questioned why the Ceres researchers never consulted the land grant university scientists that work directly with farmers.
Corn interests have long pointed to a report done in 2012 by Field to Market, a sustainability advocacy coalition of ag, conservation and academic interests, that shows from 1980 to 2011, producers cut the energy needed to produce a bushel of corn 43 percent and reduced the amount of land needed to produce a bushel by 30 percent. That study also showed the U.S. produces on average 15 percent more corn than the next largest world producer.
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