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Advancing sustainable agriculture starts at the farm

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With the right incentives and infrastructure in place, agriculture can play a key role in solving the challenges facing our planet. Source: Corteva Agriscience.

This article is sponsored by Corteva Agriscience.

The next generation of farmers and consumers are increasingly aligned on some of the most important issues facing the planet and the growing global population. In fact, the recent Future of Food and Farming study found more than 90 percent of millennial farmers and consumers believe farming must change to meet the demands of the future, and farmers must adopt innovative new technologies and methods to succeed. 

This is an achievable goal. Many management practices and technologies can be adopted at the farm level to improve environmental sustainability, including planting cover crops and reducing tillage. New equipment and technologies enable farmers to be more precise in applying seed, fertilizer and crop protection products. However, there’s a reason adoption of these practices is relatively low: It’s often overlooked that they come with a learning curve, as well as costs and risks for farmers and their businesses. 

The costs of transitioning to no-till practices, adding cover crops or establishing pollinator habitat — even on a small number of acres — are immediate and concrete, and often require farmers to make out-of-pocket investments in new equipment. The return on investment (ROI), even when backed up by research, can take years and may vary widely across geographies and individual farms. And, like everything in agriculture, results are subject to the uncertainty of rainfall, temperature and pest and weed pressure.  

Driven by the desire to improve soil health, water quality and long-term productivity, farmers increasingly are making the time and resource investments to adopt more sustainable practices. But there is room to grow. I believe the rate of adoption can be sped up by focusing on three areas: establishing long-term, predictable markets; designing and implementing circular economies; and putting data and imagery to work.

Establish long-term, predictable markets

A solid value proposition backed by predictable systems to compensate farmers for their efforts is a key component for new practices or technologies to be adopted on a large scale, especially to bridge upfront costs. 

As consumer demand for food produced using sustainable practices increases, society has a responsibility to share in the investment of building a more resilient, biodiverse and sustainable agricultural system. 

Just as there are many ways consumers support public infrastructures such as roads and public safety, our society supports agricultural systems through government programs, crop insurance and research programs. There are some grants and short-term government assistance for sustainable practice adoption, but there is an opportunity to rethink some programs on a larger scale. 

Often the missing link in sustainability efforts is a third-party verification resource. Corteva is working with the leading industry group, Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC), which includes members from across the food supply chain and prominent NGOs, to establish a credible ecoservices market and create additional revenue for farmers. Corteva also recently announced a collaboration with Microsoft to explore technology solutions for farmers engaged in regenerative agriculture. The goal is to help farmers create a consistent supply, stimulate a sustainable demand among buyers and then facilitate reliable and secure transactions for both parties. 

Through this arrangement, our companies are also working to expand farmers’ access to these carbon markets, simplifying the enrollment process, providing tools to measure soil carbon sequestration rates and providing buyers with high quality, rigorously verified credits. 

Design and implement circular economies

To meet the needs of a growing world population an and address environmental issues at the same time, farms will need to take a holistic approach to their production system including crop production, livestock and management practices. Adopting this circular economy mindset is a natural fit for agriculture. Farmers are already experts at reusing resources and reducing waste in their businesses. They’ve always looked for efficiencies such as reusing water sources on dairy farms, creating and using byproducts in commodity crops, nitrogen fixing through crop rotation, and other practices. New technologies and tools will help them do more in a sustainable and profitable way.

Put data and imagery to work

For new practices or technologies to be adopted at a large scale, there first needs to be a way to measure their impact. 

Today’s farmers have access to a wealth of data and imagery about their farming operations. My work at Granular, a subsidiary of Corteva Agriscience, is focused on helping farmers use digital tools to make data-driven decisions. Through farm management software tools, farmers are developing precise prescriptions for planting seeds, applying fertilizer and crop protection products to meet productivity and sustainability goals, and evaluating and optimizing the performance of their farms. 

One example is using high-frequency, high-resolution satellite imagery to monitor fields, allowing farmers to mitigate in-field pests and resolve other yield-diminishing problems before they spread and require additional resources. 

Ranchers and land managers are also using an innovative decision support tool that combines sophisticated imagery, data, technology and expert guidance to manage pastures and rangelands. They can make more informed choices about when and where to treat problem vegetation such as mesquite, an invasive brush species that reduces plant diversity, competes for water and limits the production of forage plants. Combining technology and hands-on management, ranchers improve quality and quantity of grass for their cattle and boost the habitat for pollinators and wildlife. 

When positive change is made at the farm level, the impacts move quickly through the food system and benefit everyone.

Another key finding in the report was that most consumers and farmers strongly believe their futures are interconnected. The foundation of sustainable agriculture is at the farm, ensuring that farmers can operate profitably today and for future generations. It will take focused collaboration from farmers, consumers, companies, governments and organizations around the world to make it happen.

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