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How Can We Recognize and Reward Sustainable Agricultural Practices Regardless of Farm Size?

Ask a Scientist - February 2011

E. Jackson from Minneapolis, MN, asks "I work with very large farms to help them implement practices that will improve their sustainability and reduce carbon emissions and other negative impacts on the environment. These farms are often criticized for being 'large, industrial, and commercial' even though they are following best practices for protecting the environment. How can we recognize and reward sustainable agricultural practices regardless of farm size?"  and is answered by Senior Scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D.

You are correct...It is possible to incorporate modern, sustainable agricultural practices on a large scale. And incentives for large farms to improve their environmental footprint are important. 

In many cases, “rewards” for sustainable agricultural practices come in the form of public funding, so it’s critical that this funding benefit farms that protect our air, water, soil, and climate—no matter their size.

Where this gets challenging is that much of the large-scale agriculture practiced in the United States today is industrial-style agriculture. These enormous monocultural farms and CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations)often cause environmental harm, only some of which is typically addressed through public programs—but they’re still receiving millions of dollars annually in public funding designed to support sustainable practices.

That’s because many of our country’s farm policies don’t address our agricultural system as a whole—they address the symptoms instead of attacking the root cause of the problem.

Here’s a concrete example: The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides assistance to farmers who implement measures to reduce water pollution. CAFOs used to be excluded from receiving these funds. But in 2002, the program was radically changed to make CAFOs a major funding recipient. UCS estimates that CAFOs have received $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments in recent years. But by definition, CAFOs crowd large numbers of animals into confined spaces—a condition that concentrates too much manure in too small an area resulting in water and air pollution. So by providing CAFOs with funding to reduce water pollution—our government is supporting an inherently flawed system for raising livestock and ignoring the many other dangerous impacts of CAFOs such as air pollution, loss of biodiversity, and overuse of antibiotics in animals that are not sick.

It should also be recognized that industrial farming practices, such as those that are common for corn and soybean producers, already receive large publically-funded support in the form of crop subsidies and a research infrastructure heavily weighted toward benefitting current large-farm practices. So emphasizing agriculture systems that are inherently ecologically sound is really a matter of trying to level the playing field toward historically neglected practices rather than ignoring monoculture-based farms.    

To truly reward sustainable agriculture practices regardless of farm size, we must start by creating farm policies that look at our agricultural system holistically. We need forward-looking, science-based incentives for famers that will help them transition U.S. agriculture away from unnecessary, environmentally damaging industrial practices, and towards smarter, more sustainable practices that can produce a healthy, abundant food supply without degrading our soil, water, and air.

UCS supports farm incentives that promote techniques such as integration of crops and livestock, crop rotation, use of cover crops to protect and enrich the soil, and integrated pest management as well as the elimination of subsidies that emphasize only production at the expense of the environment, and enforcement of anti-monopoly laws that eliminate advantages to CAFOs and monocultural farms. 

Doug Gurian-Sherman is a senior scientist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he focuses on agricultural biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. Previously, he was senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC, and was also founding co-director and science director for the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Dr. Gurian-Sherman holds a doctorate degree in plant pathology from the University of California at Berkeley.

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