Agriculture is frequently portrayed as one of the bad guys in the “environmental” story, while its decades of contributions to the health of land and the overall environment are too often overlooked. That may be why the new Sustainability Report from the National Corn Growers Association feels like such a welcome relief, with solid numbers documenting how corn farmers have for generations sought to improve their land and their production practices. As NCGA President and Ohio farmer John Linder put it, “The truth is that we have a great story to tell.”
Farmers have demonstrated a dedication to continuous improvement in how they manage resources and how production impacts the land, water, and air over the last several decades. Some 300,000 corn farmers produce one-third of the world’s corn on just 10% of the land dedicated to the crop worldwide. At the same time, corn farmers are using fewer resources more efficiently than ever before. Below are more details about the stunning sustainability achievements made by corn farmers included in the report, which is available HERE:
Soil: Farmers historically have shown the ability to gain efficiencies, especially over the last several decades, while also improving soil health. Healthier soil improves nutrient and water holding capacity, while also holding the potential to reduce fertilizer needs for farmers – adding not only to productivity but profitability, as well. Since 1980, total corn for grain production has increased +119% with crop yield increasing +61%, while the amount of land required has fallen a dramatic -41% per bushel. The adoption of cover crops and reduced tillage have contributed to improved soil health. Other advanced technologies have also been a notable contributor to these achievements, including:
Biotechnology – Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) opened a number of positive soil-improvement opportunities for corn farmers. The reduction in soil loss over the last 35 years, for example, is a direct response to reduced and no-till adoption, which biotech seeds enabled by offering additional weed management options.
Precision Agriculture – Precision ag has unlocked a world of data for farmers that, when combined with equipment and software advances, allows farmers to be more exact in their management decisions from fertilizer and herbicide application to tillage depth, seeding rates, and row spacing. Farmers have been able to reduce overlap and identify best placement and rates of inputs thanks to precision agriculture adoption.
Variable Rate Technology – Cross-referencing tools like yield maps and soil sampling results, farmers use agriculture technology to their advantage in fertilizer and chemical applications. Variable-rate application systems allow farmers to apply fertilizer and chemicals at prescriptive levels based on data-driven, individual needs within a field or acre, considering how the variables all interact with each other.
Water: On-farm water conservation practices have a number of benefits, including the aforementioned impacts on soil health. However, conservation and management are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every field environment presents its own unique characteristics, and what works for management in one region may not work in another. In fact, environments can be so technically different that a practice that works in one part of a field, may not work in another. Still, farmers have made great gains in reducing soil erosion and mitigating nutrient losses, thus reducing farm-related sediment and nutrient challenges to water quality. Just over 14% of corn acreage is irrigated, but improved irrigation efficiencies have led to a -46% decline in per bushel water use.
Energy: Farmers’ adoption of technology over the past several decades has led to a +41% improvement in per bushel energy use efficiency while greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have declined -31%. Biotech is a major player when considering the energy savings corn production gained over the last several decades. Biotech seeds reduced the number of applications needed during a crop year, subsequently reducing the energy needed to apply, haul and manufacture various products from origination to farm. Efficiencies in diesel engines have also positively impacted farmers’ on-road and off-road energy use. And, farmers’ adoption of renewable fuels contributed to their positive momentum, as well. The U.S. corn industry also enjoys a massive transportation advantage over other countries, which comes down to not only transportation infrastructure but also agriculture infrastructure. The varying opportunities to ship corn from point A to point B – roads, rail, and barge – present energy efficiencies and set the U.S. apart as a global leader. And that’s not to mention the ethanol industry and the renewable fuel standard. In 2020 alone, the use of ethanol in gasoline reduced CO2-equivalent transportation emissions by 47.3 million metric tons or the equivalent of removing more than 10 million cars from the road for one year! Corn also provides a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics and other products.
The NCGA also set sustainability goals to help continue the long tradition of leaving the land better than where it started. The release of both the report and the sustainability goals is the culmination of an 18-month, farmer-led process. The NCGA formed a Corn Sustainability Advisory Group in 2019 to proactively drive the US corn sustainability story and ensure continued demand for the crop. Members of this group — primarily US corn farmers — were involved at every step of the process and made all decisions, including setting the sustainability goals. The goals were ultimately approved by the NCGA Corn Board earlier this year. The NCGA is holding an open comment period for farmers, customers, and others to provide feedback on the report and sustainability goals. To learn more about NCGA’s sustainability goals and report or to submit a comment, click HERE.