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Field to Market: Using Sustainable Agriculture to Meet the World’s Future Food Needs

Issue February 2010

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that the global population will increase by 50 percent, from six billion to more than nine billion by the year 2050—meaning current food production levels will have to increase by about 70 percent to meet the demand. In addition, climate change and the depletion of land and water resources threaten the viability of food crops. The question of how to ensure the availability of enough food for future generations is becoming increasingly important, both in the U.S. and around the world. Regulators and scientists are taking steps today to address future concerns and promoting sustainable agriculture practices.

What is Sustainable Agriculture?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1990 Farm Bill described sustainable agriculture as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term: satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable (and on-farm) resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, a neutral, nonprofit organization that facilitates scientific and policy outcomes defines sustainable agriculture as “meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

What is being done to meet Sustainability Objectives?
Keystone, one of the many groups looking at how we can meet our future food needs while reducing the environmental impact of farming, has convened growers, conservationists, and food and agriculture companies—its Field to Market members, in hopes of engaging the entire supply chain in practicing sustainable agriculture. Field to Market’s initial goals are to meet production needs with minimal environmental impact; to advance human health through access to safe, nutritious food; and to provide economic and social support to the agricultural community. Members of Field to Market believe that using peer-reviewed science to identify best practices in sustainable agriculture technology and allowing growers to choose the most appropriate method will likely lead to an increase in sustainable agriculture practices. In addition, by having an engaged and informed supply chain, farmers may be encouraged to seek out and adopt new systems which will improve sustainability footprints, from farm to table.

One particular tool that farmers can use to learn about how their current farming practices affect their resource efficiency is the Fieldprint Calculator, a free online calculator which compares their operation’s use of natural resources from year-to-year as well as to industry averages. Field to Market also is developing evidence-based metrics to assess the environmental and socio-economic impact of agriculture in the U.S., with hopes of creating a sustainability framework to help identify and quantify key areas over time, facilitate communication within the agricultural supply chain, and meet shared sustainability objectives.

In Field to Market’s initial report findings published in early 2009, progress had already been made in meeting the sustainability goals, as crop producers are currently reducing their environmental impact by using fewer inputs to achieve greater crop yields. For corn and soybean production, soil loss prevention and energy efficiency are up by 30 percent per bushel and water use is down by 20 percent per bushel.  Carbon emissions are down by one-third for both corn and soybean production. But Field to Market has only begun its efforts to estimate trends toward improving sustainability. In 2010, water quality and biodiversity indicators will be assessed, and over time, socio-economic and health factors will be considered. Both Keystone and Field to Market believe that by bringing everyone together, sustainable solutions can be found. 

To learn more about Keystone, Field to Market, and sustainability, visit Field to Market, The Keystone Center, and Conservation International.

For more information, see the International Food Information Council Foundation Q&A, “Sustainable Agriculture: Can Biotechnology Play a Role?

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