Where Agriculture and Environment Collide

A report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology shows that while agriculture has made strides in environmental conservation, there’s still more work to do.

by Dani Yokhna
The authors of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology paper
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock

As the world’s middle class nearly triples in number, demand for meat, dairy products and eggs is expected to rise by as much as 100 percent by 2050. The question is whether agricultural production can meet that demand without causing extensive environmental damage.

A U.S.-based group of researchers addressed this question in the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology paper “Water and Land Issues Associated with Animal Agriculture: A U.S. Perspective.” The authors concluded that the U.S. model for environmental protection of land and water resources, while not perfect, has improved substantially, and though they are optimistic about the world’s ability to meet production demands and protect resources, there are still issues to address.

“I was surprised at the magnitude of the challenges ahead,” says Kelly Zering, task force chair and associate professor and extension specialist in agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University. “In the ’80s and ’90s, it seemed like we had too much agricultural production—grain prices were low, and growers were paid not to produce. We have come full cycle now, with tight supplies of food. With a larger wealthy population in the world, we are consuming more and driving up prices.”

A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization emphasized negative impacts of animal production on the environment, Zering says. Those included overgrazing, water pollution caused by both animal and crop production, and agriculture’s use of large amounts of fresh water for irrigation. The CAST authors reviewed the science behind the FAO’s claims and looked at steps taken by the U.S. to protect land and water resources and came up with a different picture.

“We tried to point out that the U.S. has been engaged in programs to reduce the impact of agriculture for decades now,” Zering says.

Among the programs cited in the CAST report are:

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  • soil-conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve
  • integrating regulation with education and research to minimize environmental impacts of livestock production
  • best management practices, reflected in USDA technical handbooks and Natural Resources Conservation Service fact sheets, designed to help livestock producers build devices or structures and implement practices to minimize pollution on rangelands and other types of intensive livestock operations

In addition, Zering says the U.S. land-grant system of integrated research, education and extension has helped agriculture make great strides in production and in environmental stewardship. He suggests that the developed world has such an abundant, affordable food supply that we’ve overlooked the need to continue increasing food production.

“Are we investing enough in agricultural research and education to continue to make the kinds of gains we’ve made in the past?” he asks, referring to the gains that will be needed to meet a doubling demand without compromising environmental quality.

The question gets to the heart of the land-grant university’s mission. In addition to helping growers produce more, land-grant research and education have produced environmental benefits, Zering says. Among those are the use of less fertilizer, less water and fewer chemicals to produce livestock and crops.

The CAST report has generated attention that will add travel to Zering’s calendar. He’s been invited to address a conference and meet with environmental officials in Beijing.

Zering will present the CAST report to environmental officials in Beijing as well as promote the benefits of land-grant-type systems at his home university.

“I think N.C. State stands out as one of the elite agricultural universities in the world, in terms of its comprehensive coverage of agriculture and the environment. This broad expertise reflects the diversity of agriculture and the rich environmental resources in this state,” Zering says. “I think we have a jewel here.”


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