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Every five years, the federal government comes out with dietary guidelines. 2015 will see the next set of recommendations. Hamburger lovers should worry, but a quick perusal of notes from the year-long series of meetings show that the committee will likely not break too much new ground: eat less red meat and more vegetables, fruit is good, soda pop is evil, etc.
Well, there is one big change: the assorted nutritionists, cancer specialists, and pediatricians have weighed in on agriculture and found it wanting. We farmers need to be more sustainable. No one could argue with that, although I’m not sure that their definition of sustainability and mine would line up.
Their mistake here is sort of interesting. When the dietary mandarins talk about sustainability, they mean agriculture should use less energy and fewer resources. Well, actually, they don’t know a darned thing about farming, but they know they’d like us to eat less red meat, and surveys of greenhouse gas emission usually credit cows as being large contributors. Although red meat consumption has been dropping like a stone, it hasn’t been fast enough for the dietary panel, and they’ve decided to give their recommendations a decidedly green cast.
Sustainability is a beautiful empty vessel of a word, available for filling with the latest fad. It may well be that the best way to increase agricultural sustainability is not to decrease the resources farmers use, but actually increase our inputs-per-acre. That’s how we’ve increased the production of food while using fewer acres over the past century, a trend that will no doubt continue into future.
We’re making breakthroughs on the application of data to farming, which may well drop the use of fertilizers and pesticides, because we’ll be more parsimonious in our application of those things. At the same time, a new company has just discovered a fungus that will soon be sprayed on seed to improve the drought tolerance of corn. Now, if the fungus can overcome moisture stress, my corn will need more fertilizer, because its yield potential has just increased. Instead of water being the limiting factor, it may be nitrogen. Nitrogen fertilizer is responsible for much of the energy use and greenhouse gases released on my farm.
Hmm. More technology, more inputs, but much more yield. That will make me more sustainable, but I don’t think its what the dietary council has in mind.Published in