These days we hear a lot about what farmers need to do to improve agricultural environmental stewardship. At the same time, we all know that California growers will play a tremendous role in feeding an ever-increasing world population. While the suggestions on what agriculture needs to do to be more “environmentally friendly” are in abundance, most reports fall short in giving California growers the rightful credit for the tremendous job they are now doing in keeping the world fed.
Some people seem to think that farmers need to learn and adopt Best Management Practices (BMPs). This observation seems to miss the fact that BMPs have been routinely practiced in commercial farming for years. Consider the following: A full 90 percent of large commercial California growers are using sophisticated GPS systems to apply pesticides and fertilizers to their crops, thereby cutting down on product waste and off-target spraying, according to Big W Sales representatives in Stockton, who sell modern precision agriculture equipment; farmers are also investing in new automatic section controls and other modern farming equipment as they come online to reduce product waste, save money and protect the environment.
Additionally, BMPs currently practiced by growers focus on the management of inputs to provide economic, environmental and agronomic efficiency in production agriculture. Examples of BMPs include practices for the management of pests, nutrients and waste; vegetative and tillage practices, such as contour farming, cropping and rotational field sequences and windbreaks; and structural practices, such as terraces, grade stabilization and sediment control basins.
There is also a lot of discussion about how farmers should be moved to more organic systems by eliminating inorganic fertilizers and crop protection tools. I would note that central to the science of agronomy is the topic of increasing crop yields and growing healthy plants that provide high nutritional value. While the debate will continue between organic and inorganic fertilizers one fact is clear: When it comes to feeding a hungry world, inorganic fertilizers are unsurpassed in their ability to provide high levels of nutrients to plants in an efficient and economical manner.
When comparing organic fertilizer sources with low-input conventional farms, the greenhouse gas emissions are about the same. And unlike conventional systems, the majority of organic cropping systems rely heavily on mechanized tillage for weed control, which increases erosion and soil carbon emissions.
And concerning energy expenditure, since the 1940s agricultural productivity has increased dramatically, largely because of the increased usage of energy-intensive mechanization, fertilizers and pesticides. It is true that the vast majority of this energy comes from fossil fuel sources. However, agricultural food systems in the percentage of energy expended in three industrialized states, for example, show that agriculture plays a very small role in overall energy consumption. The United Kingdom in 2005 used 1.9 percent of indirect and direct energy consumption; Sweden in 2000 used 2.5 percent; and the United States in 2002 used a paltry 2 percent. (U.S. figures come from “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System,” USDA Economic Research Service Report No. ERR-94.)
“Sustainability” has become a buzzword whose definition remains as unclear as its proponents’ goals. To some folks, a sustainable farm or ranch must not have an impact on the land, air or water. To others, sustainability has to do with the new technology they prefer over old technology.
Sustainability vs. profitability
Beyond all the talk is a single economic principle: No matter how “sustainable” a project is, if it doesn’t make money it will eventually fail. Ask any farmer or rancher. If it isn’t profitable, it won’t be sustainable. This fact must be uppermost in the minds of those wishing to discredit modern day production agriculture that safely integrates the usage of pesticides and fertilizers – public opinions which unfortunately fail to reflect the tremendous advances in food production that California growers are using each day to keep the world's food supply safe, affordable and plentiful while also protecting the environment.
Lastly is the ongoing debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food chain. For decades now there has been a growing number of people who do not trust food products that have been genetically altered. They believe there hasn’t been enough scientific research done to properly evaluate these foodstuffs and they are fearful that these ungodly “Frankenfoods” will eventually make them sick – in which they may suffer maladies such as hair growth on the bottoms of their feet or an extra nostril or third eye.
In a recent year-long study about GMOs and their usage on crops in Monterey County – California’s third largest crop-producing county – it was recommended that the Monterey County Board of Supervisors “not consider” a moratorium on the growth and cultivation of GMO crops in the county.
The study was requested by Supervisor Dave Potter and conducted by the staffs of the county’s agricultural commissioner and director of Environmental Health. Potter asked for the study after more and more citizens expressed concerns about GMOs in their foods and environment. Here’s what the researchers concluded:
• GMO foods currently on the market have passed risk assessments and no adverse human effects have been observed resulting from the consumption of such foods.
• The research found little scientific evidence that GMOs pose significantly more threats of cross-pollination contamination (gene flow) and environmental drift than do conventionally bred crops.
• The use of GMO crops with insect and herbicide-resistance traits has resulted in cumulative reductions in chemical usage (particularly for some pesticides and herbicidesthat are less specific pest targeted), resulting in decreased impacts to farm workers, consumers and the natural environment.
• Biotechnology may become a key resource for developing local crop cultivars adapted for climate change.
These research findings about the positive impacts of GMOs, coupled with the use of BMPs in modern day farming technology, serve to dispel fears and apprehensions about production agriculture being a greedy monster out to destroy the planet and poison the world’s food supply. Put simply, the “science” is on our side as we are confronted with the daunting task of feeding an ever growing global population. It is a noble task indeed.