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Let’s Talk About: Agricultural Sustainability

Modern agricultural production techniques are an important part of any sustainable solution to feeding, fueling, and clothing a growing world population. The further development of economies like China and India and the need for more renewable fuel sources means the only way to meet the worldwide demand for food, fuel, and fiber, while limiting the impact to our planet is through modern agriculture.

Illinois Farm Bureau Policy

The Illinois Farm Bureau (“IFB”) supports “farming methods that result in profitability, environmental stewardship, the production of a safe food supply and an adequate supply of high quality agricultural commodities to meet current and future demand.” Furthermore IFB supports regulations “based upon scientific data which has been subject to replication and peer review.”[i]

Consumer Views on Sustainability

In early 2015, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance conducted a national survey of consumer attitude surrounding sustainability. The survey found:

  • Consumers selected “improving human health through access to safe, nutritious food, improving the environment around farming and ranching, including water, soil, and habitat, and limiting impact from potential pollution to water, air, and soil” all as characteristics important to the definition of sustainability.
  • 26% of respondents indicated that the most important decision making consideration was whether or not the food was raised sustainably.
  • 43% indicate that they are extremely concerned about the issue of sustainability of U.S. farming and ranching.
  • 59% agreed that farmers and ranchers are committed to improving how food is grown and raised.
  • 56% agreed that farmers and ranchers protect the environment by using new technologies and innovations.[ii]

Conservation Tillage Farming Techniques

  • Conservation tillage is used on 63% of acreage today.[iii] Adoption of such techniques over the past 20 years was greatly enhanced by the introduction of biotech crops, which allow farmers to raise a quality crop while reducing, or eliminating plowing and tillage.
  • Conservation tillage techniques have allowed farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through less fuel consumption and increased soil carbon storage. In 2007, 14.2 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide were removed from the atmosphere, an amount equivalent to removing nearly 6.2 million cars from the road.[iv]
  • Depending on the plant under cultivation, conservation tillage techniques can reduce soil erosion by 90%.[v] Reduced soil erosion keeps fertilizers and other crop protection chemicals out of surface water runoff, thereby improving water quality.
  • According to the most recent statewide National Resources Inventory, between 1982 and 2007 Illinois farmers decreased sheet and rill soil erosion by 38%. The result was 57 million tons of soil saved each year; enough soil to fill a box car train from Los Angeles to New York and back.[vi]


  • Tools like biotech crops and better weed and insect management products have enabled farmers to dramatically increase the number of no-till acres. Illinois ranks first in the nation in number of no-till acres with 6.7 million.[vii]
  • In 2012, the use of biotechnology allowed farmers to reduce pesticide application by 36 million kilograms.[viii]
  • The use of biotechnology like rbST in dairy herds decreases their carbon footprint of and provides for more sustainable production.[ix]

Agricultural Efficiency

  • Farmers currently produce food for 26% more people than they did in 1980, with less fertilizer.[x]
  • Farmers have increased the efficiency of fertilizers significantly in recent years. For each bushel of corn produced in 2005, farmers used 17% less nitrogen fertilizer and 20% less phosphorous fertilizer than in 1990.[xi]
  • Modern agriculture production provides the efficiencies needed to meet the worldwide demands for food, fuel and fiber. Dr. Jaques Diouf, the Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, stated “…you cannot feed six billion people today and nine billion in 2050 without judicious use of chemical fertilizers.”[xii]

Livestock Production

  • Current environmental regulations do not allow a discharge of manure into water sources.[xiii] Manure is applied to farmland for fertilizer providing a good source of nutrients.
  • Modern dairy farmers have reduced their carbon footprint by 77% since 1944. Today, 3 pounds of CO2 are created for each gallon of milk produced versus10 pounds of CO2 per gallon in 1944.[xiv]
  • A recent report shows modern beef production techniques more efficiently utilize available land and produce fewer greenhouse gases than lower input or organic methods of production.[xv]

Renewable Fuels

  • The use of 10% ethanol blends reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12-19% compared to conventional gasoline.[xvi] A biodiesel blend of B20 (20% biodiesel, 80% petroleum diesel) reduces greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 10%.[xvii]
  • In 2014, 14.3 billion gallons of domestic ethanol were used. The U.S. net import dependence was 28%. Without domestic ethanol the net import dependence would have been 35%.[xviii]
  • Ethanol reduces the price of oil and gasoline by at least 15%,[xix] resulting in $50 billion in savings in gasoline purchases for American consumers. During the 2011 Memorial Day weekend, traveling American families saved, on average, $31 per family in fuel expense due to ethanol.[xx]

It is clear that modern agriculture production and the many sustainable activities that farmers already use in their farms are helping feed, fuel, and cloth the world. Today’s farmers will continue to improve their operations to be more efficient, protect the environment, and produce enough to meet the demands of a rapidly developing world.

[i] Illinois Farm Bureau. (2015). Farming Methods. Policy resolutions (pp.20). Bloomington, IL.

[ii] 2015 Terranc Group consumer market research.

[iii] American Farm Bureau Federation. Fast Facts About Agriculture. Web. 1 July 2015.

[iv] Brooks, Graham, & Barfoot, Peter. (2009). GM Crops: Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2007. PG Economics, Ltd.

[v] Purdue University. Conservation Technology Information Center and The Fertilizer Institute.

[vi] The Natural Resources Conservation Service. (1997). National Resources Inventory (Rev. 2007).

[vii] Purdue University. Conservation Technology Information Center and The Fertilizer Institute.

[viii] ISAA Brief 46-2013: Executive Summary. Web. 27 July 2015.

[ix] ICF Incorporated. (1996). An Environmental Study of Bovine Somatotropin Use in the U.S. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency. Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Division, Office of Air and Radiation.

[x] Nutrients for Life Foundation. (2010). Facts are Reassuring. Pamphlet. Online.

[xi] National Corn Growers Association (2007, July 17). Sustainability. Meeting future economic and social needs while preserving environmental quality. Online.

[xii] Diouf, Jacques. (2007, December 10). Organic agriculture can contribute to fighting hunger, but chemical fertilizers needed to feed the world. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

[xiii] National Pork Board. (2010). Quick Facts: The Pork Industry at a Glance. Online.

[xiv] Van Amburgh, Mike, et. al. (2008). Dairy’s carbon footprint shrinks. Pro-Dairy, pp. 23, 25.

[xv] Avery, Alex, & Avery, Dennis. (2007, November 26). The Environmental Safety and Benefits of Growth Enhancing Pharmaceutical Technologies in Beef Production. The Center for Global Food Issues.

[xvi] Wang, Michael. (2005). Proceedings from 15th International Symposium on Alcohol Fuels: Updated Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Results of Fuel Ethanol. Argonne National Laboratory.

[xvii] United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2009). Biodiesel. Washington, DC: Office of

Transportation and Air Quality.

[xviii] Renewable Fuels Association. Ethanol Facts: Energy Security. Web. 1 July 2015.

[xix] Barta, Patrick. (2008, March 24). As Biofuels Catch On, Next Task Is to Deal With Environmental, Economic Impact. The Wall Street Journal.

[xx] Cooper, Geoff. Renewable Fuels Association. (2011). Ethanol to Save Memorial Day Travelers $440 Million on Gasoline Purchases.

Other Sources:

The Keystone Center. Center for Science and Public Policy. (2010, August 31). Field to Market: The

Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. Online. The Global Harvest Initiative



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