Field to Market report examined sustainability trends in land use, soil conservation and energy use.
WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — “The National Indicators Report,” recently published by Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, said the upward trajectory of environmental outcomes since 1980 affecting many agricultural practices was starting to plateau.

The third edition of the report  since 2009 examined sustainability trends in land use, soil conservation, irrigation water use, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for a group of leading commodity crops raised in the United States. Three new environmental indicators also were included for the first time:  biodiversity, soil carbon and water quality.

What the report found was continuous improvement in environmental outcomes in the period from 1980 to 2015 on most indicators, but also signs that gains started to plateau in the past 5 to 10 years.

“On the whole, the crops assessed have produced more yield on less land with improved environmental outcomes on a per-unit-of-production basis,” the report said. “This continued improvement has also contributed to reduction in loss of soil carbon.”

But continued improved sustainability outcomes may require redoubled efforts, Field to Market said.

“To continue to improve on these very challenging and pressing sustainability concerns will require not just concerted efforts from farmers but collective action from the agricultural agencies, communities, and supply chains that support them,” the report said.Crops evaluated included the six previously assessed by Field to Market: corn for grain, cotton, potatoes, rice, soybeans and wheat, as well as four new crops — barley, corn for silage, peanuts and sugar beets.

Allison Thomson, science & research director at Field to Market, told World Grain, “We have great improvements, driven largely by improvements in yields, but also by conservation practices through the adoption of no-till and conservation till. We are also reaching a point where adoption of some of these trends has stalled out. We, as a member organization of partners in sustainability, need to focus on what is needed to turn that trend back in the right direction.

“In some cases, we have reached saturation of certain new tillage practices and we actually need to find new practices, such as cover crops, to help us continue to improve the trend in soil erosion.”

Thomson said most of any improvements in sustainability are related to individual decisions made by farmers to work on a particular environmental input, such as soil erosion or water quality, and do the work to improve the outcome on their land.

“Water quality is a good example,” she said. “If somebody is able to look at their system and improve their nutrient management, how long should it be before they should actually see measured improvement? What should they be looking for? What are the indicators that things are actually moving in the right direction?

“That’s what we are trying to do — help individual producers in our programs, individual farmer identify what practices they can adopt that will be beneficial in their area.”

Field to Market offers a free on-line calculator that producers may use to get scores for their fields and be able to compare them with national benchmarks.

“We would have them consult with their crop adviser, whether that would be their extension agent or a retail adviser, about what those scores mean and get some personalized guidance as to where the best opportunity for improvement lies,” Thomson said.

Field to Market, established in 2006, is an organization of stakeholders from across the agricultural supply chain that have come together to work on sustainability issues. The organization issued its first national indicators report in 2009, which evaluated trends on a national scale and used peer-review feedback to further build the quality of its science-based data.

“By providing measurement tools and resources that are outcomes-based and grounded in science, we help growers and the supply chain benchmark sustainability performance, catalyze continuous improvement and verify sustainability claims,” Field to Market said.