American farmers have become far more efficient over the last 60 years, experiencing efficiency gains of 158 percent per unit of energy used since 1948, according to a new study by the National Research Council. Output grew 1.58 percent on an annual basis while inputs only grew at 0.06 percent.
Techniques such as crop rotation have helped reduce the incidence of pest infestation, requiring less use of energy-intensive pesticides, while natural fertilizer use has decreased need for synthetic fertilizers.
Meanwhile, new agricultural technologies, expansion and commercialization of markets, government programs, and research and development have been the major drivers of U.S. agriculture for the past half century. In the case of corn, the report attributed increased productivity to increased yields per unit land as a result of improved breeding, fertilizer use, pest management, and irrigation.
However, the agricultural sector also is the largest contributor of two greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide and methane, in the United States.
The report presented both an incremental approach and a transformative approach toward increasing sustainability in the agricultural sector. Among the report’s recommendations is the implementation of conservation tillage systems, crop diversity, traditional plant breeding alongside genetic engineering techniques and water efficiency technologies such as metering.
Using a no tillage approach, for example, an result in considerable energy savings. According to the report, a no-till approach was practiced on 62.4 million acres in 2006, resulting in a net energy savings of 243 million gallons of fuel. Meanwhile, the use of cover crops can reduce water evaporation, and therefore water consumption.
The report cited market forces in conjunction with public policy decisions as two of the most significant influences on sustainability decisions. It was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Meanwhile, Oregon State University’s Energy Efficiency Center is offering its energy-efficiency services to Oregon farmers and rural businesses looking to cut their energy expenses, while beef groups have challenged the EPA’s endangerment ruling on greenhouse gasses. Some farmers are also likely to see benefits from a new climate bill, while others may see costs increase.