Saving Sustainable Farming

By Mark Holtje

It is implied, but bears repeating, that farming involves risks, sacrifices, uncertainties, and investments. The average American farmer ideally focuses both on the profit from the crops they grow and the benefits of ecological sustainability when harvesting those crops. 

However, there is a tradeoff that could easily be called “The Farmers’ Dilemma”: sustainable farming faces a classic market failure where farmers can only achieve one goal at the expense of the other. Either sustainability or profitability—but rarely both. One solution increasingly being endorsed by scientists is more local government intervention in the form of financial oversight, regulations, and accountability. This will set the ground rules for sustainable farming to the benefit of all involved: farmers, consumers, and the environment. 

Today’s demand for meat, processed food, and industrial materials drives most deforestation, however, deforestation for crops is still concerning. An article by notes that crops such as nuts, beans, and lentils—all essential and nutrient-rich—require smaller portionsof land compared to land used for cattle. In fact, NYU Tandon School of Engineering Urban Food Lab research indicates that native vegetation on agricultural land positively impacts food security, or availability and access to food, by taking less space to grow crops, and so huge volumes can be produced. 

There are other sustainable land use methods as well. For example, Contour Ploughing, or planting across a slope, prevents soil erosion. Drip irrigation allows water to seep into soil via networks of valves, pipes, tubing, and emitters, minimizing loss of water and nutrients. Agroforestry combines trees and shrubs with crops, allowing for biodiversity (and higher profits). Aquaponics cultivates plants in water filled with fish, promoting plant-fish symbiosis. Shifting Cultivation is temporary clearing of perennial crops, preventing soil fertility loss. Lastly, crop rotation requires growing a series of different types of crops in the same area to reduce reliance on one set of nutrients and help develop resistance to pests and weeds.

While these methods are eco-friendly and feasible solutions to the farmer’s dilemma, local governmental intervention is still needed to help them fully succeed.

The major reason why intervention is needed is farming’s carbon opportunity cost. As producers try to improve their farms by eroding less soil, improving biodiversity, and performing rotational grazing (not using synthetic fertilizer), these well-intentioned efforts can cause net yield financial losses. To make up for loss in acreage, you deforest, which isn’t a good idea because trees absorb harmful, pollution-producing COemissions. Producers reduce use of fertilizer and pesticides, and allow soil erosion, making the farm profitable, which considered leakage. If you improve conservation, you improve yields through sustainable intensification shown in ecological methods. 

There is one solution—but with a financial cost: Economy-wide leakages, i.e. producing less, and making lower profits. There is still demand for crops in the market, but prices decrease, disrupting markets, causing the unclear status of land and tree resources, adverse regulations, as well as lack of coordination between sectors. 

Simply put: Farmers needs to balance ecological sustainability with financial sustainability.  

Production (Total of crops produced taken to market): yield * acreage

Yield: crop per acre (area)                                     Acreage: # of acres or sq miles

Length of Growing Period: Number of days available for crop growth provided suitable conditions

A straight-forward equation for sure, but again, the issue goes far beyond the individual.  Local governments and farmers have a dynamic, complex relationship. Conservation isn’t always sufficient in many regions, so governments bend to industry and farmer pressure by not enforcing protected areas. They hesitate to conserve more land, even if this protects biodiversity and climate. Entities involved in crop growth (governments, NGOs, buyers, food processing and retail sectors, as well as financial institutions engaging with producers and traders) can collaborate to achieve ecological sustainability, but this is contingent on mutual agreement. 

This brings us to the topic of pollution, one of the reasons farmers are in this dilemma in the first place. The World Health Organization lists the six most major air pollutants as: particle pollution, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. For example, greenhouse gases (not just air pollution) are caused by CO2 emission caused by deforestation, methane from livestock belches/flatulence and manure (natural fertilizer), as well as nitrous oxide from synthetic fertilizer commonly used on U.S. farms. 

Besides on-farm pollutants, emissions from vehicles and nearby factories are also a factor. In the southern United States in particular, there are fewer bike lanes, more cars and public transportation, less park use and walking, and closer proximity to factories. 

This spells trouble. 

In a 2006 New York Times article, environmental scientists explored the ecological restoration of brownfields—land that has been reclaimed after previously being contaminated by air pollution and hazardous waste—and measured the toxicology and epidemiology risks of these lands. 

Their conclusion? The toxicological impact on human health and crops is staggering. This toll includes cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, neuropsychiatric complications, pneumonia, eye irritation, skin diseases, long-term chronic diseases, as well as increasing morbidity and mortality rates. In other words: significant damage on many levels—human and otherwise. 

And that is not the worst part. Farmers were not even made aware of these dangers. This brings in another key player: impact investors. They resolve donor misalignment and grant proposals for impact bonds, blue bonds, green bonds, all of which are fixed income. They also promote green infrastructure and energy farming projects such as creating an energy grid for renewable, fossil-free infrastructure, while stopping deforestation and habitat loss, and preventing harm to human health.

These grants, along with taxes and subsidies, influence governments and companies in terms of environmental expenditures. This incentivizes farmers and companies to collect and report farming data. Additionally, there should be eco-auditors paid by the company to test if the discharge from factories follows company standards. 

Local governments control land use through zoning regulations (by land determination, not by biomes, or ecological zones). The political economy faces the same dilemma as famers: conservation vs finances. According to the two online interviews with NYU Office of Sustainability associates Wayne Carino and Dr. Matthew Hayek, both say ecology and public health programs must balance these incentives by providing local government funds. However, this causes over-reliance on that transfer system, meaning tax incentives will not be created. 

But what is not talked about is incentive structure and intergovernmental transfer systems in counties (states taking a poll of funds for different localities, for example). One example is NGO and non-profit-intervention in the Kenya Water Bug project in Lake Victoria. These bugs are an invasive species, blocking sunlight from entering lakes, causing algae blooms (eutrophication), leading to fish deaths, detrimental to the local fishing-heavy economy. The government would reward fishermen for sustainably harvesting water bugs for biogas and renewable fuel, but only in certain areas. It is a start and more innovative solutions like this are needed.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, farming involves risks, sacrifices and uncertainties. Local government needs to play a more active role in reducing those risks so instead of a zero-sum Farmer’s Dilemma, we instead move closer to win-win solutions for farmer, consumer, and the environment alike.