Metrics in Ag Sustainability

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

WASHINGTON (DTN) — On-farm sustainability metrics have improved in a lot of areas going back to the 1980s, but also may have plateaued.

With agricultural sustainability becoming a growing industry focus, the group Field to Market released its third report on Thursday looking at environmental and socioeconomic measures for commodity crops across the country. The official title of the 71-page report is the "Environmental and Socioeconomic Indicators for Measuring Outcomes of On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States." To keep it brief, that is shortened to the 2016 National Indicators report.

The analysis looks at eight environmental and five socioeconomic indicators for 10 crops — barley, corn for grain, corn for silage, cotton, peanuts, potatoes, rice, soybeans, sugar beets, and wheat — from 1980 to 2015.

Field to Market has built itself by working with food companies and farm commodity groups to track environmental metrics on specific farms. These metric reports, however, do not use data from the 2.5 million acres using Field to Market’s field calculator. The metric report instead focuses on publicly available data from USDA on the environment and economics. For some parts of the report, such as tracking water quality, Field to Market also looks to agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey.

Rod Snyder, president of Field to Market, said the report provides a baseline for agriculture and the food industry to analyze their own sustainability initiatives. Snyder noted the industry has become far more focused on these efforts than they were when Field to Market’s second report was released in 2012.

"There is a lot more work going on in the supply chain on sustainability than four years ago," Snyder said.

Field to Market also recently held another sustainability conference that drew people from across the food supply chain. Snyder noted there is a growing "mainstreaming of ag sustainability" that is putting more emphasis both on consumer demand and what the supply chain expects to achieve in environmental outcomes. What that translates to is more engagement between commodity buyers and farmers over farm practices.

Snyder said he thinks such efforts are going to lead to more companies integrating environmental tracking tools into the farm-management products being sold to farmers. "Part of the strategy we are going to apply to get to scale is to rely on the big data and the farm management tools that farmers are using," he said. "You can see that conversation happening already."

Yet if sustainability efforts in the food industry are going to succeed, then better baselines are needed to know how farmers have improved their metrics over time. That’s where the National Indicators report comes into play.

"If we don’t understand how the ag systems have changed and what the trends have been, then we really don’t know where to focus efforts going forward," Snyder said. "We need to acknowledge what the improvements have been to move ahead. I think that’s really a critical piece of the conversation."

Snyder added, "I think it’s also important for farmers to see there have been some really good things going on out there and get some credit."

Field to Market’s report highlights the growing need for food, feed, fiber and fuel from agriculture that will also require greater efficiency as well as intensification of production on current farmland. At the same time, farmers will be increasingly pressured by changes in the climate and natural resources.

The report concludes environmental indicators for land use, soil erosion irrigation, water use, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, which have all improved compared to 1980 with the exception of soil erosion for peanut production. The report also takes a look at national trends in areas such as biodiversity, soil carbon, and water quality, but Field to Market notes that lack of sufficient data in those areas makes it difficult to calculate a national trend line by respective crop.

Further, both environmental and economic indicators are approaching a plateau or flattening in a number of crops. That trend over the past five to 10 years is "presenting both a challenge and opportunity for technological innovation combined with expanded adoption of conservation practices."

In most crops, improvements in the environmental metrics were largely due to increased production per acre. The results vary more when environmental performance per acre is measured or when total resources used are examined. For instance, more data is needed to better look at trends in soil carbon, water quality and biodiversity because of the various complex human interactions with the environment, the report concluded.

Allison Thomson, science and research director at Field to Market and lead author of the report, pointed out that the term "sustainability" translates into a complex mix of topics and several layers of both environmental and economic factors.

When asked by DTN about one of the more difficult measures in the report, Thomson pointed to data on water quality. "The water quality was a pretty interesting aspect to look at because it is a tricky environmental indicator to get a handle on," Thomson said.

The volume of on-farm conservation practices and reports from USDA, for instance, don’t necessarily translate into direct improvements in in-stream water quality data from the U.S. Geological Survey. That meshes with the current agricultural challenges dealing with water quality in the Mississippi River watershed, for instance.

Since the report looks at longer-term trends, analysis on socioeconomic factors doesn’t necessarily capture the current downtrend in prices or farmland values. Overall debt-to-asset ratios have improved over the last 20 years, but the report notes there are no clear trends on farm profitability when breaking down individual crops. Looking at other factors, the report highlights that labor productivity has improved, but also plateaued. Worker safety on the farm also has improved over time.

The full Field to Market report can be found on its website: http://fieldtomarket.org/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(AG/BAS)