The Conservation Reserve Program was in the news last week as high grain prices are causing some landowners to place expiring CRP land into production. This week, Philip Brasher writes in the Des Moines Register that 26 Representatives are calling for an early, penalty-free release of CRP land. In a related article, Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, recently addressed the debate over how to increase yields to “feed the world” while conserving remaining natural habitat.

Increasing Cultivated Land to Meet Global Demand

Mr. Brasher reports the lawmakers “claim that food shortages are possible if farmers don’t plant more grain this year, and they’re urging the Obama administration to release penalty-free some of the 31.2 million acres now held in the Conservation Reserve Program.”

The article noted that the early removal of land from the CRP is unlikely, but perhaps a longer term threat to conservation policy does exist. “While the latest idea isn’t likely to go anywhere either, there probably will be increased pressure within Congress to reduce the size of the program [CRP] or to relax restrictions on how the land is used, said Julie Sibbing, who follows federal land policy for the wildlife group [National Wildlife Federation].”

Increasing Yields on Existing Farmland

While increasing the amount of cultivated land is one approach to increasing agricultural production, others focus on increasing yields on existing farmland. In “Toward a Sustainable Future: The Debate on Feeding the World,” Dr. Kirschenmann examines competing theories on how to increase agricultural yields on a limited amount of land. One camp emphasizes an expansion of our industrial agricultural system and a reliance on advances in technology, while the agro-ecological side focuses on utilizing the connections that exist within the natural environment to increase production while maintaining environmental integrity.

Dr. Kirschenmann recognizes an agro-ecological approach will “require a rather significant redesign of our food system.” However, he also points out the alternative industrialized approach relies on non-renewable inputs that are increasingly in short supply, such as “stored, concentrated (cheap) energy, fertilizer, fresh water reserves and the unusually stable climates.” He also addresses the issue of environmental degradation and instability resulting from industrial agriculture. “Furthermore, the natural sinks that absorb wastes of this modern input/output system are saturated. Dead zones at the end of modern agricultural watersheds are increasing at a rapid rate. We have overloaded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, further destabilizing the relatively undisturbed climate that we have enjoyed for the past 11,000 years.”

Dr. Kirschenmann concludes that in order to transform our agricultural and food systems “[w]e need to nurture a new culture, one that recognizes nature as a complex, dynamic community of interdependent subjects, and that we are an integral part of that community” and reminds us of “Aldo Leopold’s admonition to develop ‘an ecological conscience.’”

Issues for Landowners

These are important issues to address for landowners seeking sustainable management of their land. Balancing the need for income with conservation efforts, deciding which land is suitable for cultivation, and ensuring cultivated land is farmed in a sustainable manner all require forethought, planning, and communication between landowners and farm operators.

It is important to remember, however, that the responsibility, as well as the capacity, to ensure the proper stewardship of the land originates with the landowner. It is the landowner who will retain possession and control of the land at the expiration of a lease term, and it is the landowner that has the ultimate ability to decide the manner in which the land is farmed.

For more information on how to ensure sustainable farm management while creating a stable and profitable landlord-tenant relationship visit the landowner tools at the top of this page. To learn more about helping farmers fulfill Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” and developing an “ecological conscience” check out the following videos: “Iowa’s Land Tenure and Stewardship Policy” and “Helping Farmers Fulfill the Land Ethic.”