Ensuring the future of food production: Uncovering sustainability on rural farmland

By Andy Whitman, Sustainable Economies Program Director

Ensuring the future of food production: Uncovering sustainability in rural America places - Root360What do you think will be the greatest sustainability issue for society, business and the environment this century? If you said food production, you are right!  With an anticipated population of 9 billion people in 2050, we need to take steps now to make our food supply sustainable and resilient.

Failure to manage the food economy risks undermining human health and social equity, puts businesses at economic risk, and threatens our environment. It’s no exaggeration to say that food production is the greatest threat to our planet, even surpassing climate change. Food production takes up 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, available land that is not in rock and ice, and continues to expand to feed a growing population. That’s why there is nowhere that adopting sustainability is more key than on our farms.

The hardest part of sustainability on the farm is grappling with the huge complexity of environments, crops, and farming systems. Tomatoes are grown differently in Maine, compared to Florida and California. How do you create a simple way to assess sustainability of a tomato farm Florida that can be applied to a tomato farm in Maine? Additionally, different crops are grown in a different ways. How do you create an assessment framework that can be used for both strawberries in California and feed corn in Indiana?

To test the notion that it is possible to create a single framework for assessing sustainability on all farms, Manomet is working with Hancock Agricultural Investment Group (HAIG) to develop such a system. Hitting the road, I embarked on a road trip to California, Illinois, and Wisconsin to catalogue HAIG’s environmental sustainability practices and indicators, all 230 of them. I encountered nearly the full range of perennial and annual crop system. This would help me dive into the weeds to find the emergent properties of farm environmental sustainability.

The catalogue was a culmination of several months of uncovering the indicators already in place. I was amazed at how HAIG farm managers underappreciated how much they already measured and managed for environmental sustainability, something that we find at many other types of businesses as well. They consistently had systems in place to reduce resource use, conserve soils, and ensure regulatory compliance. But understanding the complexity required stepping back to the basics and understanding: what do agro-ecosystems all have in common? What do people care about when it comes to farming and farms?

Thankfully, these two perspectives have a lot in common. Agro-ecosystems all require soil, water, inputs (nutrients, energy, and pest control), and key environmental functions (e.g., carbon cycle, water cycle, etc.), and have waste to manage in order to produce food. Similarly, environmental and farm groups concerned about farm sustainability focus on soil, water pollution, chemicals (pesticides), biodiversity, air emissions, and waste.

Most farms have two overarching strategies for addressing these issues through: (1) environmental conservation by protecting soil, water quality, and biodiversity associated with agro-ecosystems and (2) managing for resource use efficiency by optimizing use of inputs to optimize food production and minimize costs and environmental impacts. With these shared aims in mind, it was straightforward to create an environmental framework that could be applied to crops as diverse as corn in Illinois or pistachios in California.

With these notions in place, Manomet has drafted an environmental sustainability standard that can cover all of agriculture. Our next step to test in the field. Stay tuned!

 

To learn more about this topic, please join Manomet President John Hagan and Sustainable Economies Program Director Andrew Whitman in a conversation about the game-changing potential of incorporating sustainability into institutional investing. In particular, Hagan and Whitman will zoom in on agriculture, one of the fastest growing asset classes. Presentations will take place Wednesday, March 30 in Plymouth and Thursday, March 31 in Boston.

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