The agricultural systems and processes that have developed in the past decades need to be re-examined, says an Iowa State University distinguished professor who has studied this issue for years. Cornelia Flora of ISU's Department of Sociology says reducing financial risks and improving sustainability are important to everyone, and public policy should move in that direction.
Flora is among the experts who recently authored an article in the journal Science. It's a summary of a study conducted for the National Research Council and funded by the Gates Foundation and Kellogg Foundation, titled "Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century." Flora says, "We need a long-range approach on how we use the land, emphasizing the need to be more sustainable. A number of farmers are already making adjustments."
She adds, "Any system is always adapting, and most farmers are doing so. Iowa farmers have changed. They may not all believe in climate change, but they are making adjustments to be more sustainable in the way they farm the land."
Any future changes in ag policy should not decrease productivity
Flora says the goal of any future change should not be to decrease productivity. "We are not trying to get big combines off the field," she says. "This is not big ag versus little ag. Both are important. We can do big ag in wonderful ways, and big ag is always looking for ways to do things like be more sustainable while at the same time making money."
Flora believes no matter what system is in place, Iowa will still lead the nation in corn and soybean production, but she also wants farmers to become free from short-term price fluctuations by planting a wider variety of crops. Some changes Flora sees involve using new crop rotations, planting fruit trees on marginal land to keep soil in place, and having cattle graze on grasslands.
"Farmers can use some of their more unproductive land that isn't very good for row crops, and plant fruit trees on it," she says. "Even in places where the dominant crops are corn and soybeans, landowners can produce or lease some land to grow fruits and vegetables."
Reducing risk, improving sustainability important to everyone
Flora adds, "Currently, we have a system of price supports and subsidies that supports the production of corn and beans. But if incentives are changed so farmers could have a more sustainable rotation and make money and reduce their financial risk, it would be a benefit for rural and urban people alike."
Public and producer opinion on sustainable ag is now in favor of farming with fewer inputs. "We've done interviews with farmers and they say, 'We'd like to do things differently, but we don't think we can afford to,'" says Flora.
Under a system that stresses sustainability, there would be fewer financial subsidies for corn and beans, and more for conservation. Society already is paying a high price for the current system, she says, as roads are flooding more than before, ditches are getting filled, and when bigger, more expensive water treatment plants are required to clean water from field runoff to provide drinking water supplies to towns as well as rural water.
By farming with fewer inputs, farmers would be earning more
Flora says under a more sustainable system, "The farmer would be earning more. And it would be with more diversified crops."
The change starts with public perception and changing an entrenched system. "We have to say as a society it's valuable to us to have a more diversified agriculture, to maintain our quality of water, and of our air," she says. "Unfortunately the major driver to our current system makes it financially difficult to move out of corn and soybeans."
Flora admits that with historically high corn prices these days, getting farmers to change now may be difficult. But, she says when corn prices drop, as they always do, those farmers who have diversified may be better off.
"The change ultimately comes from people expressing their norms and values in a democracy," she says. "And we are working on getting those norms and values moved into rules and regulations and their enforcement. Policy should make it profitable to do what is good for society as a whole."