“Unified resource conservation in agriculture is an attitude, a conditioning, a philosophy toward the resources we use and renew, and the resources we consume and lose for all time. It is an ethic of continued regeneration for the future and a recognition that finite resources shall eventually disappear but must be made to last until renewable resources can be made to sustain us.” — John Pesek, former American Society of Agronomy president
The environment is on everyone’s mind these days. The media reports daily on environmental issues such as greenhouse gases and global warming, the dead zone and various other concerns.
When mentioned in press coverage, agriculture is most often implicated as a contributing cause to environmental degradation. In the public mind, we are generally viewed as exploiters of natural resources driven by profit at the expense of environmental quality. I believe the profession of agronomy is not well understood by the mainstream media, and we are often made guilty by association with agricultural practices that most of us would neither recommend nor endorse.
Despite the negative perceptions, the reality is that improving environmental quality is a major focus of our science. Our members have a long history of engaging and solving environmental problems associated with agriculture. In the 1930s, severe drought coupled with extensive cultivation of natural grasslands led to the Dust Bowl that affected vast areas of the Great Plains. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service was created in response to this ecological disaster. Agronomists and soil scientists developed and helped implement the conservation practices that restored the productivity and ecology of the region. Most of what we know about soil conservation practices is the product of agronomic and soil science.
Our members responded again when it became apparent in the 1960s that widespread use of agricultural chemicals was having negative impacts on water quality and wildlife.
In 1971, a new division — A5, Environmental Quality — was created to address these and other environmental concerns. The Journal of Environmental Quality was developed by the Societies in 1972 to “provide focus on environmental quality work …” and “make it possible for scientists in other disciplines to locate and recognize our contributions in environmental quality.”
Environmental sustainability has evolved to become a major focus of Division A8, Integrated Agricultural Systems. These two divisions are by far the largest in ASA and together involve more than 40 percent of our membership.
A core value of the profession
Based on my experience and interactions with agronomists over my career, I believe that environmental stewardship is a core value of the profession. At the very least, it is one that is broadly held by ASA members. The environmental impacts of agriculture concern all of us, but what many people do not understand is that the solutions to these problems, many of which are agronomic in nature, are the focus of the research and education activities of lots of our members.
Our members are working hard on issues related to global warming such as increasing carbon sequestration by soils and biomass and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from crops and soils. Some are studying the impact of increasing carbon dioxide and temperature on crop growth and productivity, and others are designing new cropping systems in anticipation of changing ecosystems. Our members work on conserving soils and maintaining their productivity for the future. They conduct research aimed at protecting water from agricultural runoff and chemicals leaching into groundwater.
These are just some of the environmental problems agronomists, soil scientists and crop scientists are working diligently to solve.
John Pesek, former ASA president, drew my attention to the large number of quotes about the environment and sustainability from former presidents of ASA that were included in the “Prophetic Voices from Our Past” CD developed by Vivien Allen and Phillip Brown for the ASA centennial celebration.
Pesek’s statement, presented in the above quote, still resonates after almost 30 years and reflects the ethic of stewardship that many of us share.
Another one I especially like is from former ASA President Cal Qualset:
“Our mission is producing more food and fiber for the needy of the world while at the same time ensuring environmental quality and economic development in this country and in the less developed countries of the world. This mission cannot be accomplished in the long term without full integration of policies and practices related to wise use of our precious natural resources-biological, soil, water and atmospheric.”
That pretty much sums it up for me. As agronomists, we are challenged by the need “to nearly double current crop production” by 2050 and at the same time protect soil and water resources and conserve their capacity to provide for future generations. This challenge may seem paradoxical, but there is reason for optimism on both fronts based on past successes in increasing crop yields and conserving natural resources.
In the future, it will be increasingly important to balance environmental quality with the need for increased agricultural productivity. As we develop new crops and cropping systems to meet increased demand for food, fiber, feed and fuel, we need to simultaneously evaluate their environmental consequences along with improvements in productivity. Protecting soil and water resources and conserving their productive capacity should be integral components of all agricultural systems.
Agronomy is engaged in addressing many of the most critical environmental challenges facing the world today. That makes us part of the solution. Share your thoughts and ideas with me about agronomy and the environment online at www.agronomy.org/society-info/presidents-blog.
This commentary was submitted by Kenneth J. Moore, president of the American Society of Agronomy and professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. He can be reached at email@example.com or (515) 294-5482.