Sustainable Intensification: Getting the Most from the Land

By Bruce Knight

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Have you heard enough about the farm bill for awhile?  I'm certainly tired of writing about it, and I want to switch to a more fruitful discussion-a focus on sustainability.  Sustainability has been increasingly occupying my attention and my imagination these days.  It's critical for our future as farmers and ranchers and for the 9 billion people who are depending upon U.S. agriculture to produce the food they will need to sustain their lives in a few short years. 

I want to begin a series of occasional blogs on what I like to call “sustainable intensification.”   Sustainability is a term that arose in the 1970's and was probably more likely associated with folks wearing tie-dye t-shirts and Birkenstock sandals than hard-working farmers planting corn or milking cows.  In recent years, the term sustainable intensification was coined to mean using technology to bring agricultural productivity in poorer nations, particularly in Africa, closer in line with the rapidly increasing yields experienced in developed countries, especially the U.S.  Improved seeds, increased use of fertilizer and more effective use of other inputs can all make a tremendous difference.  And we certainly need to continue to look for ways to assist other countries in implementing those aspects of American farming that will work for them in their geographic and cultural context.

Together we can feed the Bees

However, when I speak of “sustainable intensification” today, I'm thinking specifically about American producers and what they can do to get the most out of the resources they have.  Let me be clear.  While some folks are still thinking about guarding against bulging grain bins and overflowing surpluses, I'm focused on avoiding empty silos and food deficits down the road.  Now is the time to do the research and the planning that will underlie the bumper crops we will need to produce for a rapidly expanding international market eager to access as much as we can grow and ship.  There's a population tsunami coming in a few short years, and it's no surprise.  It's only smart to get ready today to feed 2 billion more people tomorrow.

I believe American agriculture is capable of meeting this challenge in an environmentally responsible way, but to do so, we will need to change mindsets and maybe some farm programs.  I think it is possible to get two for one-increased sustainability coupled with increased capacity on the best soils using the best production systems in the U.S.

How do we go about this?  That's what I want to discuss, and I'm looking for your input as well.  Hopefully, through the response button at the bottom of my blogs, some of you will join the conversation and share your thoughts on how we maximize productivity at the same time we minimize environmental impact.  (It is key to note here that the concept is to increase productivity, not just increase production.)

But to get started, what about improving soil health?  If you improve soil health, you also reduce runoff and sedimentation, and you increase productivity.  So, let's find ways to encourage more intensive use of cover crops by conventional farmers and factor double-cropping into the mix.

Climate change may bring more erratic rainfall, and we may find an increased need for irrigation in unexpected places-not just in the West, but in the Southeast or Midwest.  We need to use water responsibly.  But how does the equation on water use efficiency change if grain, fiber and feed prices plateau at today's levels rather than return to historical levels?    

What about micronutrients?  There are a plethora of products out there.  Which ones add value and which ones don't?  What are the agronomic, economic and environmental impacts of various practices and products?  In the same vein, what about precision application of these particular nutrients?  What are the environmental implications of greater use of precision technologies that boost productivity and decrease environmental risk?

It's time for the research community to weigh in and help American farmers sort these things out.  Right now, farmers must make decisions more rapidly than there is sound scientific research to guide them.

Those are just a few of the questions we'll be taking a look at.  I'm sure some of you will have others, and hopefully together we will come up with some answers as well. 

There will be significant opportunities ahead for American producers.  But to take advantage of them, we need to begin conducting research and preparing the ground now.  I believe sustainable intensification can help us get where we need to go.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.


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