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Driver of Change

Picture1There is no substitute for money.

In preparing for upgrading lesson 7 of our project’s online course, I stumbled upon a book entitled “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st century” (National Research Council 2010). The chapter that interested me was Drivers and Constraints Affecting the Transition to Sustainable Farming Practices.

I am still not sure what “Sustainable Farming” really is, but this chapter was a very comprehensive summary on the many things that shape farming decisions and categorized as Markets, Policies, Knowledge Institutions, and Societal Forces. I would encourage anyone in agriculture to read the chapter to gain  perspective on the variety, and complexity, of drivers shaping farmers decision making processes here in the US.

The common thread with all these drivers (and constraints) are that they impact economics at the farm level.

I recently stumbled up two articles in AgWeb that were perfect examples of farmers changing practices.  (Only Anti-GMO Hippies Grow Organic  and The Road Back to Conventional). These farmers made changes not made because of ideology, but rather profitability. This profitability did not occur in a bubble, but was a complex interaction of many of the drivers mentioned in this book – just enough to push them in another direction.

“Ecosystem services” was a new term also brought out in Chapter 6.

Some agricultural practices can provide beneficial ecosystem services . . . –for example, regulation functions such as water quality and nutrient cycling, pollination, and habitat for wildlife and beneficial species; supporting services, such as soil fertility, soil structure and carbon, and carbon sequestration; and aesthetic and cultural services, such as open space and cultural heritage.” (page 286)

For a variety of reasons, monetizing these “services” has been unsuccessful for a variety of reasons (e.g. who pays, how to monetize/quantify long term benefits, verifying the practices).  In addition, there is an argument that suggests payments for “ecosystem services” can look like a “payment to not pollute”. Think about it . . . public payments to farmers to install a buffer strip meant to reduce nutrients and sediment loading from their own farm fields. (Some may think this is similar to someone paying me to put my garbage in the garbage can rather than throw it in the lake or road ditch.)

OK, my real point here is that there is a conflict between short time and long term profitability. Short term profits are necessary to stay in business. Period. However, we have yet to find a good way to monetize the natural resources that will be needed to continue farming 50-100 years from now.

No one will argue that adequate water, available top soil, and a stable climate are critical for long term farming and food production. Current soil loss rates through erosion is not sustainable, nor is draw down of aquifers, polluting of water, loss of pollinators, or GHG emissions to atmosphere causing climate change.

What drivers are in place that effectively monetize these long term “ecosystem services”?

Despite my last 482 words, I am hopeful that three of the four drivers listed above will find some answers. I will let you guess the one that will not be very effective in this matter.

Always Considering Climate — David

David Schmidt MS. PE is a researcher and educator in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota and regional project coordinator for the project Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate,  a national project of the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center and funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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