FAQ

The lens through which agricultural sustainability is viewed, defined, and understood varies across disciplines; and is often shaped by where we stand in the agricultural production, processing and marketing value chain and our social and cultural worldviews. Sustainability rests on a foundation of science tempered by context, unique situations and applications. Scientific discoveries have shown there are multiple pathways to achieve sustainability goals. As we seek to examine the conceptual and practical applications of sustainability in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, there are many frequently asked questions which can help shape conversations within and among disciplines and stakeholders; and inspire and guide how we investigate sustainability.

Good science begins with asking probing questions. Our “answers” affect what we teach, the research we pursue, the partnerships we undertake and how we talk with our various publics. Sustainability research has several decades of prior work that can be used to conceptualize and frame how we think about different systems of agriculture.

The CALS Sustainable Agriculture Task Force opens this dialogue with numerous quotes, references, and their own observations. This is only a start and we invite you to reflect on these questions, consider how you would address them, and engage your colleagues, partners, and others in conversations that move us toward greater agricultural sustainability.

What roles can livestock and poultry play in sustainable agricultural systems?

Livestock can play a vital role for sustainability by diversifying our agricultural landscape. Livestock grazing production systems promote pasture systems that can provide a multitude of benefits for water quality, wildlife, and offer biodiversity to the land. Well-managed grazing systems can be used as part of a holistic management approach when incorporated into other agricultural production systems, offering synchrony among systems and a sustainable use of waste products.

--K. Craft

 

Reviewing the world history of agriculture, I am not aware of any sustainable agriculture system that did not incorporate livestock or poultry. Historically livestock played major roles in providing draft animals for transportation and heavy field work. In addition animals provided milk, meat, leather and fiber for human consumption. Animals were able to utilize forages not suited for humans or other monogastric animals. Throughout history animal manure, including human waste have been used as fertilizers. Based on the historical record it seems unlikely that long term agricultural sustainability can be achieved without livestock.

--P. Lasley

What happens if we ignore topics, questions and concerns associated with agricultural sustainability?

One of the fundamental values of a human being is that we think, nurture and care for our future generations. Ignoring questions, topics and concerns that will affect our children and future generations clearly contradicts who we are and our very own existence.

--A. Nair

 

Ignoring the looming questions of sustainability is likely not an option. The sustainability movement is a global event and if we are to maintain market share, we must recognize consumer sovereignty. One only need to look at the US automobile industry in the 1960s  when consumers started demanding smaller more fuel efficient cars. Japanese auto makers read the market and became a potent force in the industry.

--P.Lasley

 

What policies and market conditions promote agricultural sustainability?

In the study of economics, two distinct notions of sustainability are discussed. “Weak sustainability” indicates that a system is sustainable if human well-being can be maintained at current levels in the future. If people are just as happy with manufactured products (comic books and videos) as they are with natural products (weekend camping) then current generations can use up more of the environment as long as they create more productive capacity for manufactured products to compensate. In contrast, “strong sustainability” requires that certain levels of natural capital must be maintained for future generations. This idea suggests that there is no way to compensate for less natural environment. In either case, policies that appropriately price externalities (e.g., carbon taxes or cap and trade) will improve the working of the market as will policies that encourage innovations that reduce pollution and environmental damage.

--C. Kling

 

A consumer driven agriculture appears to be reshaping how food is produced and processed. Consumers are voicing their preferences through the market chain, and some of the big national chains and retailers are quite sensitive to changes in consumer preferences. Cage few eggs, elimination of gestation grates, interest in organic foods, and so forth are examples that Wal Mart, McDonalds and others are specifying how their products must be raised.

--P.Lasley

 

What are the chief impediments to the broad-scale adoption of sustainable farming systems?

In my view it is the notion that sustainable production is always underachieving when compared to conventional production. I don’t think we should see sustainable and conventional production systems as two sides of a coin. There are a number of techniques and approaches that can integrated into our current production systems to make them sustainable. I feel that ‘sustainable production’ is always caught in the crossfire between ‘organic’ vs. ‘conventional.’ I like the way Varel Bailey from Anita, IA put it, “Sustainable agriculture is the shock absorber for the swinging pendulum.”

--A. Nair

 

Sustainability can be viewed as another round of adaptation in the food system. Just as the mechanical, petro-chemical and more recently the biogenetic revolutions in agriculture were adaptations to new technologies, sustainability can be viewed as another revolution in farming. Recognizing the broader societal goals of protecting the environment, creating desirable communities and opportunities for the next generation and remaining profitable, sustainability reflects emerging concerns about the future.

Farming less intensively, placing more fragile land in conservation set asides, and reducing dependency on purchased inputs, etc., would reduce environmental costs, the bourgeoning demand for food works against what many would prescribe is needed. A significant impediment to the sustainable agriculture is the inflexibility inherent in many operations. These large-scale, capital investments are costly, and in many cases producers have substantial debt on existing equipment and facilities. Rather than wholesale system changes, we likely need to encourage fine-tuning of existing operations and processes.

--P.Lasley

 

Does agricultural sustainability require local production and consumption, or can it involve regional and global trade?

Growing locally will always offset the environmental impact of transportation, but local food production is not the only answer to sustainability. It is one of the approaches to sustainability and has its own limitations (weather, soil conditions, demography, skill-set, etc.). A much broader view of agricultural sustainability is that we explore and evaluate all useful and relevant approaches that can be integrated both locally and globally.

--A. Nair

 

Sustainability can be viewed as another round of adaptation in the food system. Just as the mechanical, petro-chemical and more recently the biogenetic revolutions in agriculture were adaptations to new technologies, sustainability can be viewed as another revolution in farming. Recognizing the broader societal goals of protecting the environment, creating desirable communities and opportunities for the next generation and remaining profitable, sustainability reflects emerging concerns about the future.

Farming less intensively, placing more fragile land in conservation set asides, and reducing dependency on purchased inputs, etc., would reduce environmental costs, the bourgeoning demand for food works against what many would prescribe is needed. A significant impediment to the sustainable agriculture is the inflexibility inherent in many operations. These large-scale, capital investments are costly, and in many cases producers have substantial debt on existing equipment and facilities. Rather than wholesale system changes, we likely need to encourage fine-tuning of existing operations and processes.

--P.Lasley

 

How does scale affect agricultural sustainability? Can large farms and corporations be part of sustainable agricultural systems?

Absolutely, in fact we need large farms to realize the importance of agricultural sustainability and be the stewards of sustainability. This is not a thing that will happen immediately but if large farms slowly start incorporating sustainable practices in their operations, it can make a big difference towards the goal of keeping our natural resources productive for future generations.

--A. Nair

 

Too often it seems the structure of agriculture (farm numbers and size) get conflated with sustainability. My research indicates that farm size is not a good measure of sustainability. I have found that among Iowa producers, it is often the larger farms that are more attentive to sustainability practices than smaller ones. Use of recommended practices such as soil testing, scouting, degree days, and BMP practices were found to be positively associated with farm size.

A well-managed large farm may have less environmental impacts than a poorly managed small farm. While there may be important social or community benefits of a large number of small farms, if they are not large enough to generate sufficient revenues, and are not profitable, then such a system would not be sustainable. One should be careful in prescribing that a system of small farms would be more sustainable than a system of large scale farms.

--P. Lasley

 

Would sustainable agricultural systems require more land than is currently used for agriculture?

I do not believe so. Advances in crop production will increase agricultural productivity thereby reducing the need for more land to be brought under production.

--A. Nair

 

Not necessarily, but it may require a more thoughtful consideration of how non-cropped areas of a landscape contribute to agricultural production. For example, by leaving land out of production, farmers may be able to conserve and exploit ecosystem services that derive from this land that benefit agriculture. For example, small amounts of perennial, native vegetation has been show to be a source of beneficial insects that provide both pest suppression and pollination for crops. If the placement of such land is done thoughtfully, reflecting multiple needs (like prevention of soil erosion, water filtration, wind breaks), more efficient crop production may be achievable. However, if agricultural practices do not take advantage of these services, then more land is likely to be used for agriculture. A result of  ‘going-big’ is the use of marginal land that requires more inputs to be productive. If such inputs (like pest management tools) erode natural resources required for agricultural production, then this approach could work against the production of an abundant, healthy food source.

--M. O’Neal

 

Would sustainable agricultural systems require more labor than is currently employed in agriculture?

There is no reason not to use hi-tech equipment and implements in sustainable production systems. In fact, successful farming operations that are integrating sustainable approaches are using mechanization to their advantage. As innovation continues in the area of pest and soil management; farm tools and implements; and post-harvest storage and handling, sustainable production systems will become more economically and environmentally sustainable.

--A. Nair

 

Possibly, but improvements in technology could reduce these initial increases in labor if a concerted effort were made to address them. For example, the increase in GPS, GIS and precision farming may allow farmers to more quickly identify areas of pest outbreaks. Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) may allow for more rapid, wide spread scouting by fewer farmers. Although the potential for such technological solutions is present, the motivation to develop it may not be present. A commitment to more sustainable agricultural production may reveal areas where such innovation could reduce labor costs.

--M. O’Neal

 

With a growing human population, would widespread adoption of sustainable farming practices lead to world food shortages or more expensive food?

One has to acknowledge that food is critical for human existence and it should be a fundamental right. One should not abandon the idea or movement to grow food in a sustainable manner simply because it produces less than conventional production systems. Conventional production systems are by all means essential for food security at this point of time, but continued dependence on these systems could jeopardize future agricultural production. Moreover, current research at various land grant universities are showing promising results when it comes to increasing production in sustainable production systems. Certainly there is room for improvement and innovation, and more work to be done in incorporating sustainability in our production systems without compromising yield, food quality and food accessibility.

--A. Nair

 

The production of more food for a growing human population may become more expensive if the resources (water, fertile soil, etc.) to produce this food are more limited in the future. If sustainable practices are effectively adopted to preserve these resources and enhance them, then food shortages can be prevented. The type of crops grown within agriculture will likely have to change as resources become scarcer.

Many of the practices required to use resources more sustainably will likely take greater effort than current practices. For example, scouting fields to determine if a pest management tool is required is an added cost that farmers would have to adopt if they transition from a preventative pest management approach. Such additional effort may result in an increase in labor needed to produce food. However, in some production systems, scouting may result in a reduction of inputs needed for crop production. Therefore, it is not clear that sustainable practices ultimately lead to increased costs.

--M. O’Neal

 

It is widely recognized that many agricultural practices throughout the world are not sustainable in the long run. Whether one chooses to explore the “slash and burn” agriculture in many parts of the developing world, or the high rate of dependency on purchased input, there are many examples that suggest more attention is needed on how to reduce the environmental impacts of food production that is profitable, and results in socially desirable communities.

Many of the assumptions about the costs of food ignores the externalities that are not adequately considered. A holistic accounting of costs must include environmental costs that are often ignored. Likewise many production systems require substantial subsidies such as subsidized water, tax breaks or government price protection for producers. Traditional row crop agriculture such as practiced across Iowa, is heavily dependent upon generous government assistance to remain profitable. Some have argued that it is not the question of profits, but how the profits are distributed that accounts for marginization of many producers. Serious questions about the long-term sustainability of conventional agriculture are being raised in the current market where most major commodities are selling below the cost of production.

--P. Lasley

 

Are certain technologies (e.g. plows, mineral fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, transgenic crops, concentrated animal feeding operations) incompatible with agricultural sustainability?

The rapid expansion in human population over the last 50-100 years has put immense stress on our environmental resources and has forced us to increase food production. This unfortunately has led to increased dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but that does not mean that those resources were inappropriate or harmful. We are in a different time now and have the capability to look back on some of those resources, primarily how they were used, and explore ways in which they can be used responsibly. At the same time new approaches and methodologies should be developed and explored to mitigate issues and concerns in current agricultural production systems.

--A Nair

 

No. Although some technologies can be highly disruptive of ecosystems, if used thoughtfully they can be compatible with a sustainable agricultural system. For example, synthetic insecticides can be used sparingly within an integrated pest management system such that they preserve the ecosystem services provided by beneficial insects. Several examples exist of selective insecticides being used such that they complement the suppression of insect pests by predatory insects.

However, if pest management tools (like insecticides, or insect-resistant varieties) are used preventively regardless of pest-pressure, the likelihood for resistance to develop to these tools will increase, eroding their value.

--M O’Neal

 

Agriculture is the most disruptive system invented by the humans. We are learning the lessons and continuing to innovate for improvement. Humans will always struggle to balance short-term profitability and long term sustainability.

--K. Wang 

 

Are certain technologies and production approaches required for agricultural systems to be sustainable?

For more than a decade there has been increased awareness toward agricultural sustainability, food quality, health standards and global environmental issues. Agricultural production practices are being modified to minimize any deleterious effects to the environment and society. Sustainable agriculture has since emerged as a powerful tool in addressing challenges of food and environmental sustainability. Utilizing resources in a responsible manner, improving soil quality and health, and adopting production practices that limit or minimize environmental impact are a few of many production approaches required for agricultural systems to be sustainable. For example, key production practices are:  

1) use of cover crops to reduce soil erosion, increase soil organic matter, enhance nutrient cycling and fix atmospheric nitrogen;

2) crop rotation to minimize pest and diseases and reduce weed pressure;

3) use of compost and manure for nutrient management; and

4) adoption of conservation tillage such as strip-tillage or no-tillage to improve soil quality and health.

--A. Nair

For more than a decade there has been increased awareness toward agricultural sustainability, food quality, health standards, and global environmental issues. Agricultural production practices are being modified to minimize any deleterious effects to the environment and society. Sustainable agriculture has since emerged as a powerful tool in addressing challenges of food and environmental sustainability. Utilizing resources in a responsible manner, improving soil quality and health, and adopting production practices that limit or minimize environmental impact are a few of many production approaches required for agricultural systems to be sustainable. For example, key production practices are: 1) use of cover crops to reduce soil erosion, increase soil organic matter, enhance nutrient cycling, and fix atmospheric nitrogen, 2) crop rotation to minimize pest and diseases and reduce weed pressure, 3) use of compost and manure for nutrient management; and 4) adoption of conservation tillage such as strip-tillage or no-tillage to improve soil quality and health. A. Nair

The first World Food Conference held in Rome in 1974 was called in response to the continued existence of widespread undernourishment and growing concerns about the capacity to meet future food needs. (http://www.fao.org/wfs/index_en.htm). While there is emerging consensus on the need for agricultural sustainability, there is less agreement on how to best achieve it. Agricultural scientists have documented that there is not a single best practice or set of practices to achieve sustainability. What may be appropriate in one setting (a field, farm, county or region) may not be appropriate in another. Fortunately, the breadth of agricultural studies have produced a variety of options, technologies and practices that used in combination can reduce environmental impacts and yet be profitable. What is key to the successful adoption of sustainability is finding the right combinations of practices that contribute to reducing environmental impacts.

--P. Lasley

 

No. Anything that can contribute to preserving the continued use of resources required for agricultural productions can be considered part of a sustainable agricultural system.

--M. O’Neal

Are there general principles to guide the design of sustainable agricultural systems?

The essence of sustainability is that a resource can be managed in a way that it does not lead to its complete or rapid depletion but rather creates a state in which it is either maintained or improved for future generations. Thus, one of the general principles of sustainability is the act of preservation or enhancement. Other principles that contribute towards sustainability include balance, realism, feasibility or relevance (economic, environmental, and social) conservation, and stewardship. A. Nair

Sustainability rests upon the assumptions that there are finite natural resources on the planet, and that population growth will continue to add pressures on these resources. A second assumption is that care must be exercised in managing natural resources so that future generations can also benefit from them. P. Lasley

Scientific knowledge about sustainability is not independent of political and social context, but is co-produced by scientists and non-scientists; different people possess different bodies of contextually validated knowledge. It is only after social and scientific values are clarified and sustainability goals are agreed upon can appropriate science priorities and research be effectively applied to agricultural systems. The value bases of sustainability must be fully articulated and negotiated through social and political means to enable science to address benefits and risks of known and unknown outcomes from designs of agricultural systems. L.W. Morton

“’Sustainability,” according to Rayner and Malone (1998, p. 132) ‘is about being nimble, not being right.’ And being nimble is about taking small steps and keeping one’s eyes open. Politics helps us decide the direction to step; science helps the eyes to focus.” (Sarewitz, D. 2004. How science makes environmental controversies worse. Environmental Science & Policy 7:385-403)

--L.W. Morton  

 

In general, activities that preserve the continued use of a resource can lead to a sustainable agricultural system. Identifying the principles that lead to this preservation can vary by discipline. Within the field of pest management (weeds, insect pest, plant diseases), sustainable uses of these tools include limiting exposure so that selection pressure to develop resistance to these tools is also limited. The methods to limit this exposure and preserve the utility of these tools may vary widely across pest types and methods.

This example highlights how designing a sustainable agricultural system requires multi-disciplinary efforts. Whether or not a weed, insect or disease becomes a pest is a function of the environment they are in. Efforts to modify the ag-environment to limit pest impact can share similar principles to efforts to conserve other resources, like soil. One general principle that conservation of soil and prevention of pest outbreaks share is an effort to capture value from the entire ecosystem to deliver services to adjacent or embedded farmland. And furthermore, within the farmland, sustainable systems can be developed in which a systems approach to pest management is adopted. This includes addressing the combined impact of multiple components of a farm that lead to pest management.

--M. O’Neal

What are the key characteristics of sustainable agricultural systems?

According to the National Research Council (2010), sustainable agricultural systems satisfy human food, feed and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base; support the economic viability of farmers, farm workers, agricultural businesses and communities; and promote a high quality of life and wellbeing for all members of society. (National Research Council. 2010. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. National Academies Press, Washington, DC.)

Daly and Farley (2010) note that the pursuit of multiple goals associated with sustainable systems needs to proceed sequentially. First, the question of sustainable scale must be settled:  How much of the natural resource base might be used and at what rate might pollutants and waste products be discharged into the environment without compromising the system’s long-term integrity? Second, within the constraints set by the biophysical environment, issues related to fair distribution must be addressed:  Who has access to the products of the system, now and in the future? And how balanced is the distribution of benefits? These questions go to the heart of social and ethical issues that include food security, poverty and intergenerational equity. Finally, after organizing the system to operate fairly within limits set by the environment, economic components of the system move forward with the goal of assuring the efficient allocation of resources. In Daly and Farley’s (2010) view, efficient allocation is defined as maximizing the level of services provided to humankind per unit of natural capital sacrificed. (Daly, H.E., and J. Farley. 2010. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2nd edition. Island Press, Washington, DC.)

An additional element of sustainability relates to intergenerational fairness. This is explicit in the Brundtland Commission Report (1987):  “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs …. . At a minimum, sustainable development must not endanger the natural systems that support life on earth.”

--C. Kling

 

Another element is to embrace advanced technologies that have been evaluated and confirmed by scientific data. “This problem can only be tackled by combining all available insights and technologies: an integrated agricultural model combining the best features of conventional agriculture with the ecological insights from organic farming but with attention for and the integration of new technology. The problems are too complex to simply glorify or rule out a single technology, such as the targeted genetic modification of crops through GM technology.” (GMO Revolution page 8, 2015, Grunewald, W. & Bury, J.)

--K. Wang