For Agriculture Producers, Every Day Is Earth Day

By: Matt Raymond, Senior Director of Communications, International Food Information Council
Date: 4/22/2013

If you've ever driven across the state of Nevada, like I have, then you have a pretty good sense of how big it is. Just take a look at it on a map: There it sits, nestled against that giant obtuse angle that forms California's eastern border. It occupies a sizeable chunk of America's quite sizeable West, to say the least, ranking seventh out of all the U.S. states by area.

So would it surprise you to know that since 1982, the amount of U.S. land that's dedicated to the production of crops has declined by 15 percent, or 70 million acres, an area almost as big as-you guessed it-the entire state of Nevada? And yet, over those same three decades, between 1982 and today, the population of the United States grew by almost 40 percent.

Do a quick check of the math, and it becomes obvious that something pretty amazing has been going on. American agricultural producers are growing a lot more food, and doing so on a lot less land. Technology is a big key to this transformation, and so is conservation. That's why it's often said that if you're a farmer or rancher, every day is Earth Day.

I'm not a farmer, but I grew up in two tiny rural communities where farmers and ranchers were the lifeblood. That's why they're always the first people I think of when Earth Day rolls around every year. It's just common sense that people who owe their livelihood and their lives to the land would want to take good care of it. Some even go so far as to say that ag producers are America's "first environmentalists."

While there's no doubt that agriculture can have an impact on the environment, farmers and ranchers are doing more than ever not just to mitigate those impacts, but in some cases, to leave the land even better than they found it. One example is the 31 million acres of farmland, an area equal to the size of the state of Mississippi, that have been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which helps prevent soil erosion and in many cases creates new wetlands and wildlife habitat.

But it's the farmers and ranchers themselves, and not just government programs, who deserve so much credit. For instance, conservation tillage systems, which reduce soil erosion, are now practiced on 63 percent of farm acres, up from just 17 percent in 1982. Many farmers plant cover crops that further conserve soil, or rotate their crops to enrich the soil with nutrients and reduce the occurrence of pests and pathogens.

They practice precision farming, aided by geographic information systems (GIS), that require fewer and more targeted applications of chemicals to combat insects and weeds. Many others use advances in biotechnology that yield crop varieties requiring far fewer pesticide treatments, which is good for the health of both the farmers themselves and the planet.

Judging by IFIC's research, consumers also care about sustainability in food production. For instance, 69 percent of consumers surveyed in 2010 agree that growing more food on less land is important, while 65 percent felt reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food was important, and 62 percent said it was important to grow plants that use water more efficiently.

Those of us who live in big cities, like I do now, owe a lot of thanks to farmers, even beyond the sustenance they provide us. Without their hard work and ingenuity, so much more land would be needed to feed and clothe us, which in turn would make it harder and far more expensive for cities and metropolitan areas to grow and keep pace with our expanding population. And without their stewardship of the land they have in production, many more of our natural resources would be at risk.

On Earth Day, and throughout the year, I hope all of us-country-dwellers and city slickers alike-could take a moment to think about what our lives and our planet would be like without agricultural producers.