Human population growth and globalization have led scholars to think more deeply about the connections between meeting people’s food and fiber needs and the natural environment. Over the past two decades, scholars and global organizations have been developing the concept of sustainable agricultural systems that provide for present needs, preserve capacity for future needs and minimally affect natural ecosystems. The sustainability concept has powered its way to the top of the priority list of many national and global agricultural organizations as concern increases over the profound implications of rapid globalization on natural resource use and the environment.
Farmland, Farm Size and Yield
Key to sustainable agriculture, farm productivity — producing more while using fewer inputs — has increased substantially in the United States and around the globe. With research support from organizations like the LSU AgCenter in areas such as improved crop varieties, pest and weed management and conservation, farm productivity (crop yields) increased faster in the United States than in many other nations. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, corn yields in the U.S. improved from 20.5 bushels per acre in 1931 to 176 bushels per acre in 2017. To put that into perspective, it would have required 580 million acres (17 times the size of Louisiana) using 1931 production practices to produce the 2017 corn crop. With modern practices, however, only 84 million acres (2.5 times the size of Louisiana) were needed.
The USDA reports that a typical U.S. farmer in 1960 produced enough food for 26 people, while the latest USDA Census of Agriculture indicates a typical U.S. farmer could feed 165 people. Similarly, soybean yield in the U.S. increased from 13 bushels per acre in 1931 to 49 bushels per acre in 2017. Globally, total production of several staple crops needs to increase substantially from current levels by 2050 to meet the demand of the growing population, but the global production is projected to fall short under current production practices.
It is estimated that global agricultural production would, on average, increase by 1.5 percent per year in the next decade. Production in the U.S. has increased significantly in major grain crops and less in other crops. Corn, rice and soybean production has improved, on average, 2.9 percent, 1.1 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively, over the past two decades. Similarly, in Louisiana, corn and soybean production has increased, on average, 4.2 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively, during the same period, which is much higher than the national average. Any increase in current production, with an assumption that production practices remain the same, could come at the expense of bringing less suitable land into production, which can have negative impacts on input use, natural resource management and overall profitability. The current situation calls for other nations to improve their use of better production methods and inputs as well as programs that support natural resource conservation.
While the U.S. has led the way, a similar trend has been reported among some nations where productivity has increased more than 100 percent. Farming practices vary among countries, with some nations using resources efficiently while some others not so much. Globally, twice as much food is grown today by farmers using less land, energy and water than in 1960. Given that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that global food production must increase by 70 percent to feed the 9 billion people forecast to occupy the planet by 2050, the pursuit of attaining higher productivity will continue. While the U.S., according to the USDA, has about 915 million acres (40 percent of the total mainland) of farmland, the share of land devoted to agriculture in other countries is much higher. In 2014, according to the World Bank, Uruguay is at the top of the list with 82 percent of its land devoted to agriculture. The United Kingdom is second with 71 percent, while India devotes 60 percent, China uses 54 percent and Germany devotes 50 percent. This suggests that productivity is much lower in these countries relative to the U.S. Moreover, with urban areas growing at a tremendous rate in some developing nations, productive farmland could face competition from other sectors. Thus, relying on efficient input use and improving productivity per acre both become more relevant.
Trade and Sustainable Food Systems
For many nations around the world, trade is an essential method to meet their food demand. In practice, nearly all nations around the world produce some of their food and import the rest. Still, a small number of nations are considered by the FAO to be self-sufficient because they produce enough food to feed all their people. The “self-sufficient” label, however, does not mean they actually feed their entire population. In terms of food, the United States is the most self-sufficient nation in the world. Other self-sufficient nations include Canada, Australia and several European countries.
The vast majority of nations rely on trade to sustain their national food systems. Therefore, trade and partnerships among nations can be key to sustainable food systems. For some of the world’s poorest nations, the United States is critical to ensuring that they can provide enough food for their citizens. In 2016, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported that the U.S. provided $2.79 billion in food assistance, supplying 2.2 million metric tons through 233 programs in 55 countries. In addition, the USDA reported that more than 1,900 million bushels of U.S. soybeans were exported as value-added products, more than enough to fill New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Agricultural Systems and Natural Ecosystems
Production of food and fiber for human needs can place tremendous pressure on the planet’s natural resources. When production increases come at the expense of natural resources (e.g., converting more natural systems to managed agricultural or agroforestry systems), there can be negative consequences for biodiversity and for the ecosystem services provided by natural environments. For example, wetlands across the planet suffered significant declines during the early period of industrial development. In the United States, wetlands areas decreased from 200 million acres in the early 1800s to 110 million acres in 2009. Wetlands loss occurred partly because the nation failed to recognize the valuable ecosystems services that they provide, such as protection from storm surge, prevention of soil loss and habitat for wildlife. Wetlands are close to Louisianians’ hearts. The Pelican State accounts for 41 percent of the nation’s wetlands.
In recent decades, several policies have been put in place to protect wetlands and other natural systems. The most well-known policy, the Clean Water Act, included a program for mitigation of wetlands that has played a major role in bringing back the role of wetlands in providing myriad ecosystem services.
Sustainable agricultural systems must also carefully consider the critical role of natural water resources. Currently, about 600 million acres worldwide are irrigated. At current levels of water use for irrigation, a 25 percent increase in withdrawals will be needed for achieving the necessary 70 percent increase in food production, which puts global water resources under pressure of depletion or disappearance, at least economically. In the United States, farmers have embraced the concept of conservation and efficiency in agricultural water use. Irrigation water use has decreased by about 10 percent on most U.S. farms. In Louisiana, regional initiatives such as the Sparta Ground Water Conservation District and the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission, in collaboration with technical assistance from conservation agencies and LSU AgCenter specialists, have resulted in improvements to water levels while marching toward sustainable use of the resource. Unfortunately, the United States is the exception to the rule, as many countries are currently struggling to sustain adequate water supplies for agriculture. Among many examples, Lake Chad, one of the largest water bodies in Africa, has shrunk 90 percent compared to its size in the 1960s because of overuse and poor enforcement of policies to conserve the resource.
A critical component of water and other natural resource use is efficiency. Countries need to embrace policies and technologies that promote resource use efficiency and implement government mechanisms that enable the availability of alternatives, such as promoting capture and reuse of water, irrigation water-saving technologies and weather prediction tools.
Similarly, the United States and several other nations have recently implemented initiatives to conserve and protect soils, perhaps the most important component of sustainable agricultural systems. Soils play a key role in agricultural production, and once lost, this valuable resource is not replaceable. It is widely believed that it would take a century to build 1 inch of soil. In the Mississippi Delta region of the U.S., soil loss through natural phenomena is 2 to 3 tons per acre per year. Conservation practices and farm-based incentives to adopt these practices have been on the rise. In 1990, 25 percent of the U.S. farm acres used conservation tillage, whereas in 2008 that number increased to 41 percent, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. In countries where there is little opportunity for expansion of arable cropland, protection of this natural resource gains top priority; however, several countries lack government mechanisms for soil management. Farmers and farming systems around the world should be on a continuous path of exploration and validation to identify the best suite of practices to mitigate resource depletion.
Sustainable agricultural systems are those that produce with low impact on natural resources and the environment and contribute to present and future generations’ needs. Once lost, resources are hard to replenish and replace. Practices that exacerbate the resource base need to be reevaluated. New policy initiatives should account for supporting sustainable production systems and a good standard of practices. For example, soil, which is a crucial medium needed for plants to grow, is subject to loss in both quantity and quality through human and natural causes. This jeopardizes the productivity of lands and exacerbates the world’s ability to achieve self-sufficiency in food.
While natural systems are transformed to managed enterprises to meet the global demand for food, it is equally important to monitor and respond to natural resource use, conservation and efficiency initiatives. Global partners need to make fundamental shifts in production not only to achieve food security but also to save natural resources and ecosystems, as they are subject to tremendous pressure because of urban development, inefficient use, and a lack of policies to monitor and protect both their use and their users. The LSU AgCenter is working to improve worldwide food security through its programs dedicated to variety development, weed and pest management, conservation alternatives and agricultural economics. The AgCenter plays a critical role in developing, evaluating and promoting local, regional, national and global initiatives that encourage adopting agricultural practices that enable manged systems to remain profitable while resources are efficiently used and conserved.
Naveen Adusumilli is an assistant professor and extension economist at the LSU AgCenter.
This article appears in the spring 2018 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.