Capitalism and conservation
Greg Doering, Kansas Agricultural Bureau
The big story in agriculture today is how carbon is going to be the next cash crop for farmers and ranchers. There are lots of headlines about how changing farming practices can remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil.
Although the science is solid, agricultural practices are only one part of the complex process of carbon accumulation in the soil. Precipitation, soil type, carbon already present, and other variables are all factors that determine how much of the element can be sequestered underground.
What catches the eye is that there is a burgeoning nascent market where private companies pay real money to farmers and ranchers who can document the increase in carbon stores in their soils. The idea is that agricultural producers get money to change their practices while private companies count the sequestered carbon against their own emissions.
Businesses are at the forefront of creating this market for a variety of reasons, but the main driver is capitalism. Environmentally conscious customers and investors demand goods and services that have less impact on land, air and water. Businesses are responding to these signals by turning to early conservationists – farmers and ranchers – to reduce the environmental impact of modern life.
The general public is discovering what farmers and ranchers have understood for decades: Capitalism and conservation are complementary and not mutually exclusive. Farmers and ranchers understand that today’s investments in healthy soil, clean air, and crystal-clear water will pay dividends for generations to come.
Farmers and ranchers today are using technology and innovative practices to produce more than ever while using fewer resources. American agriculture would have needed nearly 100 million more acres 30 years ago to reach production levels today.
This is especially true for livestock, which receives a lot of attention for expelled greenhouse gases, but which contributes only 4 percent – and declining – to overall emissions. The dairy industry produces 48% more milk with emissions per unit down by 26%. Pork production climbed 80 percent while emissions per unit fell 20 percent. Beef production is up 18 percent and emissions are down 8 percent.
These efficiencies are driven by simple economic considerations. Emissions from livestock are reduced because inputs like land and feed are expensive, so producers have a natural incentive to make the most of their resources. In short, market forces are working as they should, and American agriculture is reducing its environmental footprint in addition to offsetting carbon emissions from other industries.
For the most part, this has happened in the absence of government mandates, but that is not to say that government policy has no role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the United States. Agriculture.
No, the government shouldn’t be telling farmers and ranchers how to do their jobs, but policymakers can certainly craft incentive programs to accelerate the adoption of practices that improve production and profitability on farms and ranches.
Lawmakers can also reduce regulatory barriers in state and federal programs and fund basic research that will help farmers and ranchers achieve greater efficiency and further improve the sustainability of their operations.
While government can help ease the pace of adoption of best practices, it should also recognize that what works in one area is not always the prescription for the next. We have to trust the farmers and ranchers, with decades and generations of land management experience, to know the capacity of their soil. They are proven innovators and problem solvers in their own right.
And they are just as invested as the rest of us in successful and sustainable conservation while continuing to provide a safe, affordable and abundant food supply to a growing population.
“Insight” is a weekly column published by the Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest agricultural organization whose mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of the Kansans through advocacy, education and service.