A new research paper written by two 2023 National No-Tillage Conference speakers explores how U.S. agriculture is caught in the middle of urban expansion and society's increasing calls for land conservation. 

Richard Brain and Daniel Perkins — both speakers at the 2023 National No-Tillage Conference — along with Lula Ghebremichael, Mark White, Greg Goodwin and Mike Aerts authored "The Shrinking Land Challenge," a research paper aiming to start discussion and debate about how U.S. farmland is being squeezed by opposite demands. 

"America’s farmland is shrinking while the urban landscape is expanding, and calls for preservation are growing increasingly louder," the authors write. "Technology has manifested an abundance of food; however, technology (e.g., genetically modified crops, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) is also experiencing enhanced scrutiny as the frontier of agriculture inevitably converges with the aspirational boundaries of conservation."

The authors argue this modern agriculture technology has resulted in an abundance of food and made it possible to "rewild" previously cultivated land, but tools like pesticides are under increased scrutiny, which poses a threat to the gains made by no-tillage and other conservation practices. 

"The recourse for chemical prohibitions on implicated farmland is a reversion to mechanical tillage," the paper says. "Pesticides, particularly herbicides, have realized the no-till era, decreasing cropland under tillage by nearly 30%. Reversion to tillage not only releases greenhouse gases but also undermines significant efforts to mitigate soil erosion and eutrophication resulting from nutrient runoff."

Potential solutions to the "shrinking land challenge" include reassessing the consequences of farmland use and ownership, legislation to protect farmland from "opportunistic third-party investors" and foreign actors, incentivizing farmland ownership by farmers and programs to educate absentee landowners about conservation practices. 

“Farmers are the quintessential stewards of the land, though despite a compassion for the land that is great, the financial margins are not," the authors write. "Technology should be embraced rather than demonized. 'Conventional' agriculture has in fact realized the promise of production through technology, concomitantly facilitating food security while also enabling conservation.”

Read the full research paper here.

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