Friends, I thought you would be interested in the remarks I prepared for
tomorrow's meeting of the Sus Ag Scoping Group, of the President's
Council on Sustainable Development.
Better Late than Never: Sustainable Development
in the U.S. Agricultural Sector
Sustainable Agriculture Scoping Group
President's Council on Sustainable Development
Charles M. Benbrook, PhD
Benbrook Consulting Services
Consultant, United Nations Development Program
April 28, 1994
Back in 1991-1992, I had a chance to work with the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on a pre-UNCED
report. It describes ways to promote progress toward sustainable
agriculture through reforms in the programs and policies of multi-
lateral development institutions, working in concert with
governments, other development partners, and non-governmental
organizations. My work focused on the need for different
approaches to agricultural development, emphasizing
diversification, self-sufficiency and resiliency, working with
nature and within the limits of natural resources, and more broadly
spreading the benefits of agricultural development in order to
lessen poverty and resource degradation.
The draft report I produced for FAO became part of the
enormous volume of paper feeding into UNCED's Prep Com process.
Many of its themes and recommendations emerged in one form or
another in Chapter 14 of Agenda 21. As I watched the Prep Com
drafts evolve, I often thought to myself, "Won't it be interesting
when European and U.S. agriculture is held to the same stan-
dards...". Perhaps a glimpse of such a test will emerge today.
A. Global Food Security and Sustainability -- Which Path?
I would like to make a few opening remarks about the status of
world agriculture and the U.S. role within it. Concern is growing,
rightly so in my judgement, about the tightening of global and
regional food stocks. Technological optimists argue that the world
can produce adequate foodstuffs, if just...Africa infrastructure
could be transformed by a genie to resemble Iowa's, if a few
billion could be invested in irrigation efficiency in India and
coastal regions of Asia, if the developed world becomes vegetarian,
if the harvest index can be pushed ever higher.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, global food security is
growing ever more tenuous. Per capita grain production is
declining in some regions, and ominous signs of natural resource
decline and biological breakdown in major cropping systems can no
longer be ignored. Emerging signs of trouble has led two newly
appointed leaders of UN system institutions -- Gus Speth,
Administrator of UNDP and Jacques Diouf, Director General of FAO --
to speak forcefully of the need to move global food security to the
top of the UNCED implementation agenda.
Most worrisome is the decline in the growth of rice yields,
and declining response to fertilizer, irrigation, and pesticide
inputs. Dr. Kenneth Cassman and Dr. P.L. Pingali work for the
International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and have
completed a comprehensive study of rice yields. They write --
* "In the 1980s, area expansion [of rice production] virtually
halted. Most of the increase in rice output from 1964-81
resulted from increased yield, but growth rates decreased from
2.6% per annum in the 1970s to 1.5% from 1981-88."
* "Concurrent with the decrease in yield growth rate,
aggregate data from some countries suggest declining partial
factor productivity for certain inputs...In Indonesia from
1976-86, for example, total rice production increased by 70%,
mostly due to increases in yield, whereas estimates of
nitrogen (N) fertilizer use on rice increased by 440%."
(Quotes from "Chapter 5: Extrapolating Trends from Long-term
Experiments to Farmers' Fields: The Case of Irrigated Rice
Systems in Asia", in Agricultural Sustainability in Economic,
Environmental, and Statistical Terms, forthcoming 1994).
Farm land receiving high levels of fertilizer and pesticides
in specialized, monoculture-based systems, are showing signs of
biological trouble, in some cases collapse, all over the world.
Tropical and sub-tropical regions are proving the most unforgiving
when farmers ignore the need to sustain soil quality.
Changes in microbial activity and soil structure are altering
the efficiency of nutrient uptake, and probably also heightening
susceptibility to root pathogens. Adverse changes in soil quality
can occur when high levels of nutrients and pesticides are added to
certain cropping systems, materials which in combination exert
profound, albeit often short-lived, pressure on soil life.
Over time, microbial communities have become less diverse, and
more frequently subject to rapid, distinct spikes/troughs in
population levels. The outcome is greater periodic vulnerability
of plants to pathogenic microorganisms, leading to impaired root
development, the onset of disease, and/or poor expression of a
plant's genetic immune capability. It is possible that convent-
ional breeding and selection for resistance has contributed to
heightened vulnerability to once innocuous soil pathogens, in
effect trading broad-based resistance to most pests and
environmental stresses for high levels of resistance to particular
pathogens and insects.
B. Shifting Gears
Modern agricultural science and technology, despite its vital
contributions to meeting food security needs, has been, in a sense,
blinded by success. Some chemical-intensive systems have been
pushed beyond the breaking point. A growing cadre of scientists,
most working in the developing world, recognize its time to pull
back from the global food security precipice we now are
approaching. The search is on for the most reliable path to
sustainable agricultural development, a search now guided by the
sound principles and strategies embodied in Agenda 21.
It is indisputable that crop yield increases per unit area
must carry the lion's share of the burden in increasing food
production in step with food demand and population growth. Given
that yields are stabilizing or declining in most of the intensively
farmed regions of the world, is it realistic to expect another
"Green Revolution" to come along, pushing average yields higher,
perhaps through the wonders of biotechnology? Not if we stick to
the present paradigm of agricultural development, which views
farming largely as an input-output, materials handling process.
Achieving a higher degree of global food security will depend
on reversing the decline in natural resource productivity, and in
enhancing the biological productivity and resiliency of farming
systems. The answer is not more pounds of hotter fertilizer and
pesticides per hectare. It will arise from success in restoring
the biological integrity of soils, worldwide, so that they support
higher and more diverse microbial communities, hold and provide
more nutrients per acre (both from fertilizer and natural sources),
and take in and store more water.
Farmers, agricultural institutions and policy-makers, the
USDA, and agribusiness need to re-think the importance of building
soil quality -- those well-known physical and biological properties
that must be steadily enhanced in order for farmers to consistently
increase levels of production. The wise use of inputs will remain
an integral part of this process, but natural cycles and ecological
processes must be its foundation. This will not happen without a
paradigm shift in farming system design, without major change in
the conduct and priorities governing agricultural research, and in
policies shaping decision-making on the farm.
Beginning with the 1985 farm bill process, the U.S. government
has been engaged in important debate on policy and institutional
changes needed to accommodate the shift from engineering-based, to
biologically-based farming systems. Ideally, policy reform should
accommodate gradual, systematic change, and in this way avoid the
need for more draconian measures. I turn now to some issues the
President's Council could address in advising the Administration on
ways to move ahead with such a gradual, science-based transition
toward sustainable agriculture here in America.
C. Sustainable Development: Leading Indicators for
the U.S. Agricultural Sector
Sustainable agriculture is now accepted in the U.S. as a
worthy goal. Disagreement persists regarding whether we are moving
toward or away from sustainable agriculture, and whether changes in
policy and priorities are needed. In debating policy reforms and
judging whether they are working we need a way to "keep score".
One constructive step the President's Council could take would be
to issue, or call upon the government to develop (and report in the
annual Economic Report of the President), a set of "Leading
Indicators" of sustainable agriculture. Such indicators should be
designed to provide insights into the direction and rate of change
in agriculture -- its economic status, environmental performance,
capacity to meet both domestic and global food security needs, and
stewardship of resources.
Exemplary indicators are discussed below, reflecting the
breadth of considerations inherent in the concept of sustainable
agriculture. For the sake of discussion, some national goals are
described which could be recommended to the Executive Branch for
incorporation in the 1995 farm bill, or other appropriate legis-
lative vehicles, like re-authorization of the Clean Water Act or
the long-awaited pesticide reform package released last Tuesday.
Resources and Environment
1. Efficient use of plant nutrients
Two key measures involving nitrogen: 1) the efficiency of
nutrient utilization (percent of total N available to the
system relative to N utilized by the crop); 2) dependence on
off-farm sources (percent of total nutrients available in the
farming system that are derived off the farm, by volume and on
the basis of BTU equivalents).
National Goals -- 75% nutrient use efficiency per farm,
85% in high priority, vulnerable water-sheds. No more
than 50% of total nutrient needs from off-farm, energy
2. Soil quality and conservation
Erosion: 1) monitor percent of land in given area eroding over
5 tons per acre, and percent over 10 tons per acre; 2) include
in USDA natural resource surveys and research measures of the
biological integrity of soils, including data on compaction,
organic matter content, and biological activity.
Goals -- Erosion control: no more than 20% of cultivated
land in any year eroding over 5 tons/acre, in a
county/water-shed size region; no more than 5% over 10
tons per acre.
Soil quality: 1) assure that by the end of the 1995
farm bill (year 2000), soil quality is increasing on more
acres than it is declining in the U.S.; 2) establish a
research and policy agenda to assure that soil quality is
stabilized or growing on virtually all farm land in
America by 2010.
3. Pest management and food safety
Monitor attainment of the President's goal of significant
reduction in the number of pesticide acre-treatments, and the
volume of use weighted according to risk. Establish risk-
weighted pesticide use baselines by crop/state for high
priority foods, using averages for 1990-1992.
Goals -- 1) reduce risk-weighted volume of use by 50% by
2000 through reduction in use and/or phase out of the
most hazardous B/2 carcinogens and Tox Category 1
pesticides; 2) reduce use by 80% by 2010 through adoption
of bio-intensive IPM on 90% of all areas of high
consumption fruits and vegetables.
Economics and Communities
4. Rural economic growth and activity
Monitor diversity of the economic base and the extent to which
income generating activities are kept within the community, in
predominantly rural counties. Measure: 1) % total income from
sale of agricultural commodities in unprocessed form; 2)
diversity of ag/food sector income base; and 3) % of
agricultural income spent on inputs brought into region.
Goals -- within a region: 1) increase by 33% the total
"value-added" income stream derived from raw agricultural
products produced in a region, striving toward at least
50 percent; 2) assure that at least 50% of total
agricultural/food industry income is derived from value-
added activities; 3) increase diversity of ag/food
industry economic base, such that no crop/product
accounts for more than 25% of total sales in unprocessed
form, or 40% in processed form.
I appreciate the chance to offer these comments before the
Scoping Group. The world is looking to the United States for
creative ideas and motivation in acting on the challenges of Agenda
21. Given the global significance of U.S. agriculture, our
remarkable agricultural S+T infrastructure, and influence on
international development policies and priorities, there is no more
important area for the U.S. to fully rise to UNCED's challenge.