Crop Nutrition

Environmental Stewardship and High-yield Agriculture: Integrating the Two to Feed a Growing Population

eKonomics News Team

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By 2050, the global population will exceed 9 billion and agriculture production will need to increase by 60% to provide adequate nutrition to meet growing demand.

In most countries, there is little opportunity for farmland expansion and agriculture is tasked with significantly increasing yields without increasing finite land areas. One solution to this problem is high-yield agriculture, which has grown over past decades.

Environmental stewardship, which refers to the commitment to protecting the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices, is also receiving increased attention. Many factors affect the potential for agricultural systems to adversely affect the environment, including weather and application practices. Environmental stewardship and high-yielding agricultural systems may be perceived as being at odds with one another. However, it is necessary for the two areas to be utilized simultaneously to successfully feed a global population and conserve resources for future generations.

Tom Bruulsema, Phosphorus Program Director of the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), and Lara Moody, Senior Director of Stewardship and Sustainability at The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), have extensive experience in this field and have shared their input with eKonomics to illustrate how the two practices can work together to ensure future success of the agriculture industry.

How can environmental stewardship and high-yield agriculture co-exist?

Tom: Achieving both a clean environment and high yields is challenging, but the connection between the two will prove critical in feeding a large and growing human population. Because farmers are continually challenged to get more out of the limited amount of land that is available to farm, nutrient application (sometimes above natural conditions) is required for high-yield agriculture. When these nutrients leak out of crop systems, they can disrupt natural ecosystems – harming the environmental stewardship cause. This is where careful nutrient management comes in – the practices of ensuring the right source of nutrients, at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place – the 4Rs.

Lara: The relationship between environmental stewardship and high-yield agriculture is not an either-or decision, but rather a collaborative partnership. The two areas of study work hand in hand to increase farmers’ ROI and protect the environment by focusing on ways to keep nutrients in the root zone where they are most beneficial to crops.

For farmers, high-yielding agricultural systems have a lot of associated costs and keeping nutrients in the root zone is key in maximizing ROI as they are getting more for their money. For the environment, keeping nutrients in the root zone means that fewer nutrients are being lost through waterways.

What are a few steps farmers can do achieve both?

Tom: Farmers can focus on placing nutrients where they are most available for the growing crop. Application of nutrients in bands below the soil surface and near the seed row puts these nutrients where the young seedling’s roots will most readily take them up as they grow. This allows the crop to begin capturing sunlight earlier in the season, increasing yield. It also protects the nutrients from losses to the air and water – limiting the nutrients that are lost to the environment.

Lara: Optimizing nutrient inputs for plant uptake is key. We need to focus on when and where the plant needs nutrients the most to achieve maximum use by the plant and limit loss.

It is important that all stakeholders realize that regardless of how well we optimize nutrient use, we’re going to lose something because there is one important factor that we have no control over – the weather. This is where mitigation comes into play. Both the 4R techniques and mitigation practices should be used in conjunction to minimize nutrient loss. Depending on a farmer’s location and their particular conservation needs, a variety of practices are available, including, but not limited to buffer strips, cover crops, terraces, controlled drainage.

How have you seen the agriculture community’s attitude towards environmental stewardship change?

Tom: In the last five to ten years, the agriculture community’s increasingly positive attitude towards environmental stewardship is evident on a regional level. For example, farmers in the Lake Erie watershed have become keenly aware of the connection between nutrients and algal blooms. Most farmers live near enough to the lake to appreciate its clean water for recreational purposes – they enjoy fishing, boating and swimming as much as everyone else. As a result, we have seen farmers ready to do their part to be part of the solution.

Lara: There has undoubtedly been increased awareness of environmental stewardship within the agriculture community as there has been growing attention placed on the issue from a variety of stakeholders. There is a difference between awareness and concern, however. While the larger community is aware of the problem, concern for the consequences of nutrient loss is not always present until there is a pending need in a particular community. Awareness of a need to pay greater attention to environmental stewardship can be dependent on where a grower is located geographically and within a watershed. There are many areas where we have seen growing interest in environmental stewardship efforts over the past few years. A few examples include increased focus on watersheds comprising the western Lake Erie basin, the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River basin and in parts of Illinois where regional discussions and the examination of phosphorus and nitrogen loss has necessitated growers to evaluate the environmental impact of their operations.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions /concerns farmers have about environmental stewardship and high-yield agriculture?

Tom: Owing to past experience, some farmers perceive environmental stewardship as cumbersome rules that inhibit their ability to grow crops successfully. Using a 4R approach, however, emphasizes regulating practices only when necessary, and making the most of voluntary practices aimed at achieving key goals. Some farmers may also perceive that high-yield agriculture requires more nutrients and other inputs than they can afford, but the reality is that high yields can be achieved with reasonable input levels and careful management of the agronomics, along with soil health. Strategies such as compaction avoidance, conservation tillage, sound crop rotations and cover crops can go a long way.

Lara: The notion that all environment and conservation groups are “out to get” the agriculture industry isn’t always the case. There are organizations who support what farmers are doing, opening doors for them and allowing the industry to have non-traditional partners, so the industry should keep an open mind in choosing which groups we engage with.

The 4R approach has been established as an important element for farmers looking to increase environmental protection, production and profitability. Are there any additional factors the ag community should be aware of surrounding environmental stewardship?

Tom: I think the ag community recognizes the importance of not only practicing sound environmental stewardship, but also communicating it. The stakeholders of agriculture – those who eat the food it produces, breathe the air and drink the water it impacts – need to be informed. They won’t have time for all the detail, but emerging sustainability documentation systems can boil down the information and present a simple but accurate picture of what farmers are doing with regard to responsible management of plant nutrition.

Lara: Environmental stewardship will, and should, remain a component of discussions to achieve high-yielding agricultural systems. Working to minimize nutrient loss benefits both discussion topics. Because stakeholders in the environmental stewardship space are not always educated on agricultural systems, the practices we choose and the constraints in which we operate, it is crucial for the farm community to be engaged in those discussions. We can’t all assume someone else is watching out for agriculture’s best interest and having the conversations for us.

To benefit all stakeholders, including growers and those focused on environmental priorities, growers must acknowledge the potential impact nutrient losses have on the environment as they increase agricultural output. Those involved in the agriculture industry should recognize the importance of both high-yield agriculture and environmental stewardship, engage in these discussions and use these practices to influence their decisions moving forward.