Editor’s note: Join Field to Market Vice President of Science and Research Allison Thomson at the VISION Conference as she explores how agriculture companies can turn sustainability promises into progress. Learn metrics and modalities for carbon farming, scope emissions, and how U.S. agriculture can move the needle on environmental targets.
Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture has released the fourth edition of its landmark National Indicators Report, Environmental Outcomes from On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States, which provides critical national-level analysis on progress in environmental indicators across eleven U.S. commodity crops. The report, last issued in 2016, demonstrates that progress across five key environmental indicators has largely plateaued over the last decade, demonstrating an urgent need for greater collective action from the value chain in order to achieve sustained transformation of the agricultural system.
Field to Market’s National Indicators Report is a peer-reviewed report utilizing publicly available data, published government reports and scientific literature to measure sustainability trends of commodity crop production in the United States between 1980 to 2020. This edition of the report updates the national level indicators for Energy Use, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Irrigation Water Use, Land Use and Soil Conservation for eleven major commodity crops, introducing newly available data on sorghum for the first time.
Where earlier editions of the report chronicled steady improvement across these indicators since 1980, the 2021 National Indicators Report finds that many areas of improvement have largely plateaued. These findings underscore that greater collective action is needed across the value chain to understand and create the necessary enabling conditions to support a transition to sustainable agriculture, including a focus on areas such as social science research and financial mechanisms.
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Key findings from the report include:
- Significant opportunities for U.S. agriculture exist to contribute to climate change mitigation through reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, principally through achieving greater fertilizer use efficiency — which will reduce soil nitrous oxide emissions — and the use of renewable energy as well as energy efficiency improvements. Additional climate mitigation can be realized through reducing tillage and planting cover crops to increase soil carbon sequestration.
- Overall energy use efficiency from commodity crop production has improved over time; however, several major crops have shown increases in energy use over the past decade, resulting from increased use of fertilizer and crop chemical inputs.
- For major commodity crops, soil erosion was significantly reduced from around 1990 through 2005; however, since the early 2000s soil erosion has largely held steady. This reflects a flat trend for adoption of no till and reduced till practices recently and a relatively modest adoption of cover crops to date. Understanding why conservation tillage adoption has plateaued will be key to driving future improvements in soil conservation.
- Assessment of biodiversity and water quality trends highlight multiple environmental benefits from strategic placement of diverse, perennial vegetation including native grasslands within crop landscapes.
“Since 2009, the National Indicators Report has provided a critical, science-based benchmark for our industry to understand where progress has been made, as well as where our collective efforts are falling short of creating systemic change,” says Allison Thomson, vice president of science and research at Field to Market. “While the research to develop new technologies is critical to success, it is increasingly clear that social science research and community support to address the agronomic and financial risk related to changing productions systems is necessary to achieve sustained transformation of the agricultural system.”
Significant improvement in soil erosion, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in the 1990s and early 2000s outlined in the report demonstrates that when new technologies and incentives allow farmers to achieve greater efficiency, they will rapidly adopt new practices. As improvements in these areas have flatlined in recent decades, the report underscores the need for the value chain to place renewed focus on understanding the enabling conditions needed for landscape-wide improvements over the next decade.
“As interest in sustainable agriculture grows, we must remember that achieving measurable progress in environmental indicators relies on complex decision-making at the farm level,” says Brandon Hunnicutt, Nebraska farmer and Chair of Field to Market. “Where progress has stalled, our industry must understand and create the enabling conditions that support widespread transition to sustainable practices, including providing farmers with financial incentives, technical assistance and peer learning opportunities.”
In addition to assessing sustainability performance by crop, the National Indicators Report also provides national-level trends on biodiversity, soil carbon and water quality, providing landscape-level analysis on three critical indicators where publicly available data is insufficient to draw conclusions on crop-specific performance. Where previous versions of the report included sections on socioeconomic indicators, Field to Market recently release individual, peer-reviewed reports on farm financial well-being as well as responsible pest management, elevating analysis of national level trends related to both topics.