The term “sustainable farming” has been around since the mid-1970s, but there is no social or technical consensus on what the term actually means.
“Those who use it are typically highly critical of conventional commercial farming because they believe it’s too large scale and too invasive to the environment,” says Robert Paarlberg, author of Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat. “Simply put, they would like to turn back the clock to the early days of farming when things weren’t as big and industrialized.
When researching his book, however, Paarlberg discovered that today’s farming methods are actually more sustainable than many people think. He hopes to provide important farming information to those who don’t normally learn about agriculture firsthand, people who only learn about it from environmental advocates and critics.
The Way It Used To Be
Paarlberg’s father grew up on a farm in Lake County, Ind., in the 1920s and 1930s. The farm was small — about 160 acres — and produced wheat, corn, soybeans, potatoes and a variety of other crops, including hay for the horses that pulled wagons around the farm. His family also raised livestock like cattle, hogs and chickens.
“Those farmers ran fully diversified operations, didn’t burn fossil fuels and used wood to steam-up engines,” Paarlberg says. “They didn’t purchase any fertilizers but instead recycled animal manure. And, of course, didn't use pesticides.”
According to Paarlberg, his parents’ generation of farmers met the mark of the popular definition of "sustainable farming." But as nature-friendly as these operations were, they lacked significantly in efficiency — forcing farmers to work harder for less profit compared to today’s operations. Paarlberg says corn yields were around 40 bushels per acre at the time, while today's corn yields can average 250-300 bushels per acre.
“That means if farming today was what it was back then, a farmer would require 6-7 times as much land to produce the same quantity of crops,” says Paarlberg.
A farm of yesteryear also required significant human labor — labor that returned very little payout.
“In the 1930s, the income of the average farming household was only two-thirds as high as a non-farming family,” says Paarlberg, who adds that his father’s family farm netted a return of negative $1,203 in 1932 for a whole year’s worth of work.
The Way It Is Now
“Today we’ve solved most of these problems, but the dominant view of modern commercial farming is highly critical,” Paarlberg says. “Environmentalists claim today’s methods are non-sustainable. Scientists believe modern farming is damaging the soil, the water and even the climate on an unprecedented scale.”
But the picture is different when comparing data from the 1950s and 1960s to today. Though our nation’s agricultural inputs have remained consistent since the late 1940s, the total output and farm factor productivity steadily increased.
The USDA released data documenting the nation’s agricultural outputs, inputs and total farm factor productivity. The research shows a steady increase in total agricultural output from 1948 to 2017, as well as a little varying total farm input over the same period.
This data proves that while farmers are yielding almost triple the product, their inputs are roughly the same as the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“That’s what we call productivity — getting more for the same amount or getting the same amount for less,” Paarlberg says.
Further USDA research shows increased land productivity for corn-specific operations from the 1870s to 2010. From 1870 until around 1940, the amount of corn produced per acre was pretty consistent. However, advancements after the 1940s, especially the development of hybrid corn, greatly increased the amount of product produced per acre while actually decreasing the amount of land used to yield that higher quantity.
“Today we’re producing five times more corn than we did in the 1940s on 20% less land,” Paarlberg says.
That saves land, offering more room for wildlife, habitats and other ecosystem services.
Data collected and analyzed from 1980 to 2011 shows a 30% reduction in land use for corn production. Additionally, there has been a 67% decline in soil erosion, which is the result of no-till and other conservation tillage methods. Energy use dropped 43% due to reduced tillage burning less diesel fuel, which also helped account for a 36% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is all a strong sustainability trend for corn, and the data is quite similar for cotton, potatoes, rice, soybeans and wheat,” Paalberg says. “We’re going in the right direction.”
The U.S. vs. The World
Farming is not without environmental impacts. And although government entities have released programs, such as the Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) approach in 1985, none have scaled up to any significant extent. According to Paarlberg, the ideas of these programs don’t appeal to farmers, mainly because of the labor-intensive nature of the work. Regardless, the efficiency of farming in the U.S. has grown over the decades.
American farmers have forged advancements that are paving a sustainable path, now and for the future. They’re finding out what works and what doesn’t and applying that data to their operations.
“Regenerative agriculture has proved valuable,” Paarlberg says. “Other practices like organic methods are, frankly, unhelpful to sustainable farming. “
Organic methods eliminate synthetic chemicals, making it more difficult to reduce or eliminate the tillage needed for weed control.
In September 2021, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack delivered a speech to the G20 Agriculture Ministers at a meeting in Italy. He threw down the gauntlet to the European Union, which had recently embraced what it believed to be a transformation in sustainable agriculture. They called it the European Green Deal, designed to move European farming toward organic production, driving up the organic share of acreage in EU countries from 8% to 25% by 2030. They also wanted to promote this example as a path others throughout the world should follow.
Vilsack, however, made it clear that the U.S. planned to stay on its current path — to invest in sustainable productivity growth through agricultural research and development. He also announced the creation of a new coalition of countries supporting agricultural productivity growth, and he gained support from multiple agricultural powerhouses, such as Argentina and Brazil.
“One of Europe’s goals is a 50% reduction in pesticide use,” Paarlberg says. “Considering pesticide use in Germany is almost twice as high per hectare compared to the U.S., I think that’s a good strategy.”
European Green parties have also pushed the continent away from using genetically engineered seeds. However, because of these GMOs, the U.S. has enjoyed a reduction of insecticide use and an increase of no-till or low-till farming, which has proved extremely beneficial.
Farming in African countries, where growers use sustainable practices, are all organic because they can’t afford fertilizer.
“They also don’t have diesel fuel, electricity or irrigation, and they only use heirloom seeds,” Paarlberg says.
But many of these farmers are poverty-stricken and malnourished, and their children’s growth is stunted. Without fertilizer, irrigation or GMO seeds, their productivity remains stagnant compared to their global counterparts.
The U.S. is making leading advancements in agriculture and the technology needed to sustainably continue such advantageous practices. There are a variety of precision agriculture tools —like real-time kinematics, variable-rate technology and soil moisture probes — that are already helping to remedy recent and current environmental concerns.
“All of these eco-modern tools allow farmers to fine-tune their methods, from irrigating to fertilizing to pesticide use, better than ever,” Paarlberg says.
As a result, farmers are now using fewer resources to yield a more plentiful crop — practices that are pushing U.S. commercial farming in a more environmentally sustainable direction.