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Montevideo American-News - Montevideo, MN
  • Modern Agriculture: Modern Enough?

  • In order for Minnesota to become organized as a Territory of the USA in 1849 there was necessity of meeting a population threshold of 5,000. The 1850 Census showed Minnesota with 6099, the USA with 23.2 million and the World population stood at 1.26 billion. Today Minnesota is home to about 5.4 million, the USA to 316 millio...
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  • In order for Minnesota to become organized as a Territory of the USA in 1849 there was necessity of meeting a population threshold of 5,000. The 1850 Census showed Minnesota with 6099, the USA with 23.2 million and the World population stood at 1.26 billion.  Today Minnesota is home to about 5.4 million, the USA to 316 million and the World is at 7.22 billion and counting. Minnesota is the 12th largest state in the USA with a surface area of 86,938 square miles which amounts to 55.6 million acres.  Approximately 50 percent or 28 million of those acres are considered natural or conserving use lands.
     
    In 2013 Minnesota farmers planted and subsequently harvested for grain about 16 million acres of corn, soybeans and spring wheat while the total respective USA number is approximately 175 million acres. Other miscellaneous crops grown in Minnesota to include various hay lands amounts to approximately 3.2 million acres (NASS 2014). There are those today that proclaim Modern Production Agriculture leaves much too large a footprint on the environment and should thus return to less intense and more sustainable production practices, such as those of the late 50’s and early 60’s. If we proceed to calculate a comparison to say 1960 agricultural production practices, we find that farmers would have needed to plant 38 million acres of corn, soybeans & spring wheat in Minnesota and 414 million acres nationwide to harvest equivalent 2013 production. Where would those additional 22 million acres needed for planting have to come from in Minnesota or for that matter the much larger 239 million acres needed nationwide?
     
    Turning to a Stanford University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled [Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification] and as reported in the Journal Nature by Jeff Tollefson, “To many people, modern agriculture, with its industrial-scale farms and reliance on petroleum based fertilizers, may seem a necessary evil---one that has fed a growing human population while causing untold damage to the environment. But the alternative may be worse, concludes the Stanford University study: a less-productive agricultural system would destroy even more wild land, drive up greenhouse-gas emissions and wreak havoc on biodiversity. The study’s results suggest that further agricultural intensification will play a critical part in addressing global warming.”
    “The notion that increasing crop yields preserves forests and other native lands dates back to the father of the ‘green revolution’, the late US plant scientist & Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, and is known as the Borlaug hypothesis. The Stanford University team attempted to quantify that effect and to calculate the resulting reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.  In the study, researchers modeled the world as we know it, complete with the ‘green revolution’ and modern agriculture practices, and two alternative realities in which crop yields were kept at the levels of the early 1960’s. The results show that increased greenhouse-gas emissions resulting from intensive farming are more than offset by the effects of land preservation, which keeps carbon sequestered in native soils, savannahs and forests.”
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    “The environmental benefits will accrue if yields continue to increase, say researchers.  A team from the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Maryland published research in the Journal Science entitled [Implications of Limiting CO2 Concentrations for Land Use and Energy] in which they analyzed land-use scenarios and found that increasing crop yields could reduce emissions as much as could energy technologies such as wind and solar.”
    In summary, world renowned University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman, along with others published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled [Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture]. This research looked at tradeoff scenarios between caloric productions, nitrogen use, land cleared for crops, GHG emissions, technology advancements and technology transfer & adaptation.  Dr. Tilman and his group found that allowing global agriculture to maintain the status quo (as we tend to think we are quite advanced today; at least in some locations) would mean that nearly 5 billion additional acres would need to be cleared and committed to agriculture production by 2050.  They concluded that the best scenario would be “trajectories of global agriculture development that are directed to greater achievement of the technology improvement and technology transfer frontier” while increasing global nitrogen use from its present 100 Mt/yr. to 225 Mt/yr.; as a result, this scenario would require the least conversion (494 million acres) of natural lands to crop production and also yield the least increase in global GHG emissions (1Gt/yr.) in 2050 when global population reaches some 9 billion.

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