Letters (Week of June 4, 2008)


Toward ag that is truly ‘sustainable’

 

Webster’s dictionary defines “sustain” as to keep going or prolong. By extension, “sustainable agriculture” would mean a system of food production that can be depended upon to keep going or prolonged to produce food for a population.

Paul Penner’s column last week seemed to take a rather narrow look at a few components of sustainable agriculture and generalize them to the whole. Sustainable proponents look at the current industrial agricultural model and ask some basic questions that beg to be addressed.

Agriculture is very fossil-fuel dependent with the fuels for farming machinery, fertilizers (especially since 1909 with the Haber/Bosch method of using natural gas to synthesize ammonia from the atmosphere for nitrogen), and the farm production chemical pesticides that are petroleum based.

Everyone should read the article, “Tapped Out,” in the June 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine. The “peak oil” debate has migrated out of the “lunatic fringe” press and is now getting a serious look in many quarters.

If world oil production levels off at around 85 million barrels a day while demand continues to grow, it may be difficult to sustain our present agricultural production system.

Maybe a presidential candidate could develop a national fuel-rationing system that would ensure adequate fossil fuels for food production and transport at a price that would allow for a continued low cost food supply.

In the United States agriculture is the largest user of water, mainly for irrigation of field crops in the western part of the country. As most of us in Kansas know, groundwater sources like the Ogallala aquifer are diminishing and could be exhausted in the next 25 years or less.

The sustainable agriculture answer would be to husband the groundwater for the most valuable crops and return the majority of the land to grass, and small grains that require less water—i.e., wheat, millet and barley.

Methane gas is a greenhouse gas that contributes to atmospheric warming and has been present in the natural world forever. It is an exaggeration to say that the aim of sustainable agriculture is to eliminate livestock production on farms.

The concentrating of thousands of animals in a small area without good management of the manure is a cause of water pollution, air pollution and the wasting of a valuable asset.

A well-engineered digester can capture the methane for use as a fuel on the farm, off-setting the need to purchase evermore expensive propane and natural gas.

Manure can also be used as a source of fertilizer to reduce the dependence on fossil fuel produced nitrogen.

Sustainable agriculture is about managing finite resources that are needed for food production and preserving and protecting the soil and water for future generations.

Harry E. Bennett

Marion


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