Sustainable agriculture depends on diversity

Thomas L Dobbs, professor emeritus of economics at South Dakota State University and WK Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy fellow, says monocropping is a thing of the past. Agriculture in the 21st century will depend on sustainable practices.
Issue Date: 31 October 2008

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Thomas L Dobbs, professor emeritus of economics at South Dakota State University and WK Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy fellow, says monocropping is a thing of the past. Agriculture in the 21st century will depend on sustainable practices.

 Sustainable practices like minimal tillage and better fertiliser timing need to be incorporated. Governments should help create conditions for environmental service markets to function. The use of more regulations is needed to increase diversity on our farmlands.

More regulations are urgently needed to steer the US farm and food policy away from export-oriented, high-input, high-yield commodity crops towards a more inward approach that encourages independent family farms to adopt organic and other ecologically integrated systems. It’s questionable whether systems that don’t have enough biological diversity such as monocropping can keep agriculture ecologically sustainable over the long term.

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Getting the most out of price premiums The first step up from chemical-intensive systems with little or no biological diversity is incorporating more sustainable practices such as reduced or minimum tillage or better fertiliser timing and placement. This can make particular farming systems more sustainable.

A lthough there are many challenges in making ecologically produced foods profitable and affordable, rising energy costs and growing health concerns will increasingly tip the balance in favour of foods that can make legitimate claims to environmental, health, or food safety. But if sustainable farming systems are to be widely adopted, it’s important they’re not limited to products viewed as specialities or niche products. Clearly, more farmers will have to be induced to adopt biologically diverse farming and we’ll have to chart paths to achieving whole systems changes – in other words, transitions to a much greater use of ecologically integrated systems.

Of course, many “ecologically produced” foods are already being marketed for their environmental, health, nutritional, and humane animal treatment characteristics. But transaction costs in the value chain tend to be high when the volume of individual “quality” labels is small. So, although markets for these products are growing rapidly, their share of the total food market is still relatively low. I n the organic industry, most costs are initially borne by farmers and others in the supply chain and maintaining traceability in the supply chain is very expensive.

However, supply and demand conditions ultimately determine these costs, so they’re in part, really borne by consumers in the form of higher prices. Unfortunately, just because these price premiums have been available to many farmers, doesn’t mean they’ve been equally available to all of them.

Individual farmers may obtain very modest or no premiums on some of their organic production in any given year. f the were to adopt the “precautionary principle” which is the general operating principle in the EU, products which society perceives as carrying special health or environmental risks due to their production or processing methods might need to carry precautionary labels. That would tend to shift some transaction costs from ecologically produced foods to foods produced and processed using synthetic chemicals, growth hormones, prophylactic antibiotics, genetic engineering and the like.

The multifunctionality view of agriculture We can also learn from the agricultural policy dialogue in the EU, which for some time now has rested on a multifunctionality view of agriculture. This is the view that agriculture does more than just provide food, fibre, energy and timber. It has many functions and purposes, potentially producing a wide range of outputs or services such as sequestering carbon, enhancing wildlife, providing valued landscapes, preserving wetlands that reduce flooding, enhancing biodiversity and providing rural employment.

On the other hand, agriculture that depletes organic matter or erodes soil externalises costs that others in society must bear. One important policy tool for government authorities is to help create conditions for these environmental service markets to function.

In the US, high commodity prices are severely undermining the stewardship payment programmes’ ability to induce the adoption of more ecologically sound farming systems. In fact, the current price environment is likely to make it difficult to hold on to some of the ecological gains made over the last decade or so.

The net result is that farmers continue to have very powerful incentives to keep much of their acreage in the few crops to which most of the commodity payments are directly or indirectly tied – maize, soya beans, wheat, rice, and cotton. This is despite research showing that ecologically diverse systems, both organic and non-organic, can be more profitable than conventional maize/soya bean systems.

Sadly, the structure of agriculture that evolved after the Second World War increasingly inhibits the adoption of organic and other ecologically integrated farming systems, because they tend to be more labour- and management-intensive than “conventional” systems.

Problems facing organic farmers

Currently, the top eight problems are considered to be: weather-related production losses, organic certification costs, obtaining organic price premiums, high input costs, lack of organic marketing networks, high labour costs, weed-related production losses, production losses due to pests or diseases. Nevertheless, we are probably now at a juncture where we need to seriously consider the use of more regulations to bring about changes that would retain or greatly increase diversity on our farmlands. – Roelof Bezuidenhout. For more information visit |fw