Ag studies: good, bad, scary

Glancing at area farm fields, one recalls the Rodgers and Hammerstein lyric “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” and new research from the University of Illinois College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Studies (ACES) strengthens the notion contained in that song, “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning.”

After all, agriculture faces increasing demands for food, feed, fiber and fuel under the threat of climate change, so the challenge is to meet growing needs while protecting natural resources, and studies show there’s hope that farmers can commercially benefit from balancing agricultural and environmental concerns.

First, a new article published in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy had researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign identifying the need to build capacity for farm practices that consider both the environment and agriculture.

“Land is the resource in fixed supply on the planet. We have to figure out how to best use the land to meet diverse needs,” says Madhu Khanna, Distinguished Professor in UIUC’s Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and lead author of the study. “We need to be looking not just at what the technologies are and what their environmental benefits are, but also at their economic effects so that we can weigh the trade-offs involved.”

In the study, conducted at the Northwestern Illinois Agricultural Research and Demonstration Center near Monmouth, UIUC scientists provided proof that rotating crops increases yield and lowers greenhouse gas emissions compared to continuous corn or soybean.

For example, comparing the corn phase of a corn-soybean rotation to continuous corn showed an average yield benefit of more than 20 percent and a cumulative reduction in [greenhouse gas] nitrous oxide emissions of approximately 35 percent, they said.

“I think farmers are looking for reasons to avoid growing in a monoculture,” said researcher Gevan Behnke of the Department of Crop Sciences. “They’re looking to diversify and rotate their systems. If they’re doing that partially out of a concern for the environment, it lowers greenhouse gases. And it could potentially result in a substantial yield increase.”

Elsewhere, estimating the extent and cost of damages from climate change over the next 100 years is challenging, making difficult planning for future temperatures and precipitation, glacier retreat, sea-level rise, increased frequency and intensity of storms, droughts, etc. But in a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, researchers from UIUC and Yale offer a method of integrating current models to develop forecasts of uncertainty in global and regional economic growth rates through the year 2100.

Peter Christensen, a UIUC assistant professor, compared estimates from expert economists and an analysis of long-running trends and variability, and he found substantially higher uncertainty than current studies of climate change impacts, damages, and adaptation.

“The scientific community has been underestimating uncertainty in the primary factor [long-run economic growth] that drives greenhouse gas emissions,” Christensen said. “Results from the study suggest more than a 35-percent probability that emissions concentrations will exceed those assumed in even the most severe of available climate change scenarios.”

Yale colleague Kenneth Gillingham added that the outcomes “have worrisome environmental implications if we don’t see real effort by policymakers.”

Another study showed a real effort to cooperate with neighboring farmers can effectively combat resistant weeds such as water hemp, which is already resistant to multiple herbicides.

“If you take the cheap route, you’ll save some money in the short term on your herbicide costs, but in the long term, you’ll have a much greater likelihood of developing resistance,” said USDA’s Agricultural Research Service research ecologist Adam Davis, an adjunct professor in UIUC’s Department of Crop Sciences.

The option – free as well as effective – requires that “people talk to each other and work together as opposed to doing everything on their own,” Davis said.

“The message is not to use the most expensive herbicide program possible; the message is to use the available tools to manage weeds better,” he added. “If you do that on your own farm, certainly it’s going to help. If you do it on a bunch of adjoining farms, it’s going to help even more.”

Farm associations, drainage districts, etc. can facilitate collaborations, Davis suggested.

The outlook isn’t all rosy, as the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) warns that key components of the pending Farm Bill are environmental issues that could be controversial:

  • The proposed bill cuts the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The SEJ notes that “when land is taken out of production, it not only saves soil but also props up crop prices.”
  • The biggest item in the bill would authorize EPA to approve new pesticides without considering their possible impact on endangered species, as it does now.
  • Addressing animal-welfare issues, especially in large-scale animal operations, concerning air and water quality, safety and cruelty, could be restricted since the measure would outlaw state regulation efforts.
    The bill also would undermine the National Organic Standards Board, a citizen group overseeing USDA organic rules, to let the Agriculture Secretary unilaterally decide which non-organic substances can be used post-harvest, and require the Board to consult with the Food & Drug Administration or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when considering to allow a pesticide or other non-organic substance in production.
    Despite concerns with Congress meddling in agriculture, the research offers hope.As the song’s chorus ends, “I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.”

Bill Knight

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