By adopting technologies that boost productivity and efficiency, U.S. crop and livestock farmers have helped protect the nation’s environment while meeting growing global demands for food, fuel and fiber, leading economists said last week.

“If you think about the quantity of food we provide today, or the overall calories we supply, the gains in efficiency have had a tremendous impact in our ability to protect the environment,” Jim Mintert, a Purdue University economist, said at a Chicago Federal Reserve Bank conference on agriculture and the environment. “I think it’s widely underappreciated how much productivity gains have helped the environment.”

Robert Johansson, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agreed that outstanding gains in farm output over the past few decades have been accompanied by a reduced environmental footprint.

Because farmers are able to meet growing consumer demand with fewer acres for crops and fewer food animals, they have also been able to adopt conservation practices on more environmentally-sensitive lands through programs. Those programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Pro­­gram (EQIP), have reduced soil loss, improved water quality and added wildlife habitat.

Added impacts
“If we had the same kind of farm productivity you had in the 1970s, you would be seeing a much greater impact on streams, lakes and the air,” said Johansson, the keynote speaker at the conference in downtown Chicago. “It has really been a key to improving environmental health.”

The pork industry provides a good example of those gains, Mintert noted. Pork production in the United States has soared 70% since 1990, but the country’s pig breeding herd is 9% smaller than it was then.

“That type of efficiency gain is almost unimaginable,” Mintert said. “If you told somebody in 1990 that this was going to happen, they would have been highly skeptical.”

Besides providing consumers an abundance of high-quality protein at lower costs, the gains by livestock farmers have reduced land use and trimmed greenhouse gas emissions, the Purdue economist said.

“Ongoing productivity im­­prove­­ments arising from innovation are the foundation of a sustainable food system, and the productivity improvements in the livestock sector have been dramatic,” he said.

Technology gains vital
Both Mintert and Johansson emphasized it’s important that farmers continue to have access to technologies, such as GMOs, that have boosted production and aided the environment.

“Every technology should be evaluated based on its impact,” Mintert said. “But if you try to stop all technologies that have boosted agricultural productivity, you would be doing society a great disservice.”