Can We Trust Agriculture to Make Itself Sustainable?

This week, I attended the Sustainable Agriculture Summit, an event aimed at bringing together industry groups, interested non-profits, and others to showcase and promote all of the work attendees and sponsors are doing to make American agriculture more sustainable, resilient, and productive.

At least that was the intention. Co-sponsored by Corteva Agriscience, McDonald’s, Tyson, and many other large food and agriculture firms, the event was more industry than not—a veritable who’s-who of the meat, dairy, inputs, and commodity companies. And massive changes to that industry were not on the table. Nor were dietary changes, at least none that I heard.

And yet, there was an abiding sense of optimism that—even absent such discussion and with only the quietest mention of policy and disruptive technological change—U.S. agriculture can become significantly less carbon emitting, more resilient, and a better steward of the land. This leads to the obvious question: can we take the agricultural and food industries at their word? Can they make themselves sustainable? Actually mitigate their emissions? Limit their own land use?

In the opening keynote of the summit, USDA undersecretary Robert Bonnie underlined the key pathway through which the U.S. agricultural industry could become more sustainable: productivity growth.

U.S. agriculture has seen massive productivity growth over the past century. Overall, total factor productivity for U.S. agriculture grew 4.6-fold between 1910 and 2017. To produce around 5 times as much food and other products as it did a century ago, the farming sector today uses less land and less labor but more chemicals and other intermediate inputs.

That productivity growth has also meant a decline in greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1961, for example, the emissions intensity of beef—how much CO2 equivalent is released per unit of agriculture product—declined by 35%. Pork emissions intensities declined by 41%, rice by 52%, and milk by a whopping 68%. Almost across the board, U.S. agricultural products are less emissions-intensive than they were 60 years ago, let alone in 1900.

Land use for agriculture is also down. Productivity growth, matched with some fairly light conservation regulations and incentive programs. The United States uses about a fifth less land for agriculture today than it did in 1945. To illustrate this point, if corn yield per acre was the same today as in 1961, the United States would need additional land the size of France to produce its current total.

These are obvious environmental and climatic wins. But those victories weren’t the goal; they were simply co-benefits of the broader drive to increase profits, including by increasing yields and reducing inputs.

And this should be the first rule of industry-led sustainability: If the goal is productivity growth, trust it.

The second rule follows: If big meat, dairy, or any other incumbent company labels anything that is not fundamentally about productivity growth as a sustainability effort, do not trust them.

Of course, productivity growth alone cannot make agriculture fully sustainable. The hyper-efficient farms that produce significantly more goods with lower emissions on less land are still responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, still contribute to local and regional nutrient runoff, and remain threats to biodiversity. But less productive producers are also responsible for these harms, too—arguably, there are no current farming practices that do not disturb landscapes, emit greenhouse gasses, and decrease biodiversity compared to non-utilized landscapes—all while emitting more emissions and using more land per unit of product.

The problem is that whereas productivity growth—and its environmental co-benefits—is economically advantageous for farmers, the practices that could decrease harms like biodiversity loss or nutrient run-off are costly to producers. In fact, they often run directly counter to productivity growth.

For example, regenerative agricultural practices—cover cropping, low- or no-till farming, and the like—have been touted as means of putting farms in harmony with the soil, promoting soil health, and sequestering carbon all the while making food healthier. Food companies, investors, and producers have embraced regenerative techniques, sorting out novel ways to urge farmers to adopt them, and going on the marketing offensive to brand, label, and upsell regenerative products as “more sustainable.”

Yet yields fall when farmers adopt regenerative practices, which reduces the productivity of the farms and the total amount of product grown. Producers can typically manage these penalties because “regenerative” goods can be sold for significantly more. But regardless of the premiums for “regenerative” food, reduced yields mean higher food prices, more land used to grow the food needed, and more greenhouse gas emissions. On a local scale, in other words, some environmental benefits may be had when a farmer switches to regenerative, but on a global scale, emissions go up, deforestation goes up, and biodiversity goes down.

Similarly, the food and agricultural industries cannot improve other sustainability measures—water conservation, manure-related pollution, and habitat protection—without losing money. Each and every one of these improvements cost money, and few, if any, provide a return on that initial investment. While it is encouraging that more industry groups are setting sustainability and net-zero emissions targets, there is little to no short-term incentive that could make the necessary changes happen fast enough.

Little incentive, that is, outside of the government; if we’re not going to rely on productivity growth, and its varied benefits, we must then turn to the only entity that can force the issue. Whether through investment in new technologies that make certain harms of agriculture a thing of the past, public incentive programs that pay farmers to reduce their nutrient run-off to protect nearby waterways, or stricter rules for producers, the government is a far more trustworthy driver of sustainability.

Public research programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the Agricultural Research Service have successfully driven the agricultural productivity growth that has made private industry more sustainable over the past decades. New opportunities for government investment in the adoption of conservation and other sustainable practices, technological development, and growth of alternative food industries can further advance sustainable agriculture and food beyond the pale of the industry’s piecemeal and incremental approach. To be sure, this vision is still reliant on private food companies, but relying on private interests to achieve the public goals of decarbonization, sustainability, and better food for all would be a mistake.