Is American Agriculture Sustainable?

Introduction:

Some environmental problems are bigger threats to human welfare than others. The security of our food supply should be a higher priority than beachfront property values, but how do we decide what the most important environmental problems are? In Frontiers of Sustainablity, Paul Faeth ranks the threats to U.S. agricultural sustainability as greater or smaller based on the geographic scale of threats, the current trend of threats, and the uncertainty inherent in some threats. In his analysis soil erosion, often thought to be a major threat to agricultural sustainability, is a small threat because it can be corrected at the local level using well understood techniques at acceptable costs. Nutrient runoff and pesticide pollution pose potentially significant and largely unknown threats to human health and are therefore classified as medium threats to sustainability. Wetland losses through conversion to farm land have declined in recent years and is classified as a small sustainability threat.

The author argues that declining farm numbers and farmland loss poses no threat to agricultural sustainability; while it is a serious social problem, it does not threaten our ability to produce food. Water supply is considered a small threat to sustainability because such a large volume of water is used inefficiently on low value crops that conservation and removal of subsidies would have little effect on total crop production. Agricultural germplasm loss — the loss of wild plants — is a major threat to U.S. agricultural sustainability. Repeated major crop losses to disease and pests have shown that modern agriculture is vulnerable to genetic losses. Extinction of wildstocks irretrievably closes off future opportunities not only for crop improvements but also the development of genetic responses to emerging pest and climate threats.

The World Resources Institute is an independent center for policyresearch and technical assistance on global environment and development issues. Paul Faeth is the director ofthe economics program at WorldResources Institute. His undergraduate degree is in agricultural engineering from the University of Florida and his masters degree is in resource policy from Dartmouth College. We spokewith him about his work evaluating the threats to American agriculture.

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