ANNUAL AGRICULTURAL OUTLOOK CONFERENCE
United States Department of Agriculture
Outlook '90, Session # 11 For Release: Wednesday, November 29, 1989
John E. Ikerd
Project Leader, LISA-FDSS
University of Missouri
Public fears regarding possible contamination of foods with agricultural
chemicals has combined with persistent concerns "r soil conservation and water
quality to make agriculture and the environment a/ a major national issue. Fears
related to Alar in apples and cyanide in imported grapes, for example, replaced
fears of another drought in summer 89 news headlines. The Food Market Institute
reported that 82 percent of food shoppers responding to a recent survey said that
chemical residues in foods posd A "n*rious hazard to their health Ctelmel).
Many farmers also are concerned about their own health and the health of
others as evidence mounts concerning negative impacts of agricultural chemicals
on the environment. Testing of farm wells used for drinking water have shown
that a significant number contain at least trace levels of fertilizer and
pesticide residues. A recent report by the Agriculture and Law Institute
indicated that 40 to 56 percent of the 568 farmers surveyed favored restricting
fertilizer application in watersheds know to have high risk of water
contamination (Institute for Alternative Agriculture).
Even farmers who feel that current farming practices are environmentally
sound are concerned about the future of a chemically dependent agriculture.
Farmers realize that costs of pest control are rising as pesticides become less
effective. Nearly 500 insects and 50 weeds have become resistant to pesticides
over the past few decades (League of Women Voters). David Pimentel estimated
that farmers have increased their use of pesticides more than 30-fold since 1945
while pest-related crop losses have continued to climb.
The National Research Council issued a landmark report, Alternative
Agriculture, in 1989 that gave instant credibility to those who had contended
previously that an environmentally sound and resource conserving agriculture
could be productive and profitable as well. That report also identified
agricultural policy and a biagad research agenda at land grant universities as
major obstacles to achieving a more sustainable U.S. agriculture. Agricultural
impact on the environment has evolved into a major public issue.
The Question of Sustainability
Much of the current environmental debate in farm press has centered on the
concept of Low Input Sustainable Agriculture or LISA. Research and education
projects identified as LISA projects have been funded in the last three federal
budgets through the agricultural productivity title of the 1985 farm bill. Total
funding for the 3 year period has amounted to less than $13 million. However,
the LISA program has been the focal point of much of the public debate regarding
agriculture and the environment, even though LISA funds amount to less than 1
percent of the total federal agricultural research budget (Smith).
Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) is a relatively new term and thus
has no universally accepted definition. However, LISA actually embodies two
Beparate concepts: low input (LI) and sustainable agriculture (SA). These two
terms are related but do not mean the same thing.
Sustainable Aericulture. A definition of sustainable agriculture is still
evolving as a product of debate concerning agriculture and the environment.
However, there seems to be a growing consensus that a sustainable agriculture
must be made up of farming systems that are capable of maintaining their
productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Sustainable systems mus;
be resource conserving, socially supportive and commercially competitive as well
as environmental sound (Ikerd).
Systems which fail to conserve their resource base eventually will lose
their ability to produce.. Thus, they are not sustainable. Systems which fail
to protect their environment eventually do more harm than good, ultimately
destroy their reason for existence and thus are not sustainable. Resource
conservation and environmental protection are the ecological dimensions of
Farming systems which fail to provide adequate supplies of safe and
healthful food at reasonable costs will not support social progress and
ultimately will lead to political disruption. Agricultural systems of communist
Europe and China are prime examples of systems that were not politically
sustainable. Systems that are not commercially competitive will not generate
the profits necessary for financial survival of producers and thus are not
sustainable. Social supportiveness and commercial competitiveness are the
socioeconomic or economic dimensions of sustainability.
In the long run, there is no conflict between ecologic sustainability and
economic sustainability. In the lone run. farming stems must be productive,
competitivP and Ornfitahim nr thay -.nnntr he sustained economically. Also
systems must be ecologically sustainable or they cannot be profitable in the long
run. Even. in the short run, there is no conflict between ecology and economics
from the standpoint of society as a whole. When all costs and benefits to
society over time are considered social costs will exceed social benefits only
for those systems that are also ecologically sustainable.
The potential conflict concerning sustainability arises between individual
producers and society in the short run. In the short run. systems that are most
profitable for individual farmers may or may not be sustainable. Also.
sustainable individual farming systems may not be profitable in the short run.
In such cases agricultural sustainability may require government
involvement. -overnment subsidies and penalties can be used to reconcile
differences between private and social costs and benefits so farmers will find
it in their self interest to makes decisions that also are in the interest of
society in general. Alternatively, government funded research and extension
programs can facilitate development and adoption of farming systems that are
both ecologically sound and economically viable.
Are current agricultural systems in the U.S. is sustainable? This is the
crux of the sustainability issue. Many farmers, commodity groups and
agribusiness firms argue that there is no evidence that our current system is
not sustainable. They contend that U.S. consumers have the most abundant,
healthful and safe food supply in the world and that people are leading longer,
healthier lives as a result of modern agriculture.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, argue that the evidence of
environmental degradation, such as chemical residues in water supplies, is
conclusive and it clearly indicates excessive use of synthetic chemical in
farming. Consumer advocated argue that we can't wait for future cancer and other
health consequences of consuming chemically contaminated foods before we restrict
Conservationists, point to the non-renewable nature on soil, fossil fuels
and many water sources as clear justification for social constraints in resource
use. These groups contend that delays in addressing the issue of the negative
ecological impacts of conventional farming can only add to growing, possibly
irreversible, risks to people and damage to our environment.
The current public debate is between those who would continue to emphasize
productivity and profitability as a means toward the end of sustainability and
those who feel that agricultural sustainability is threatened by current farming
practices which waste .scarce resources, degrade the environment and present
unacceptable risks to consumers. Neither group is opposed to the objective of
sustainability. They differ only with respect to the means of achieving
Low-Input Versus Sustainable. The low input or LI part of LISA generally
is associated with farming systems which rely less-on external purchased inputs,
such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and more on internal resources such
as land, operator labor and management (Rodale). There is no clear division or
point of separation between low inmnu and hi.h input farming systems. Thus,
lower input rather than low input might be a more appropriate term. Systems
become lower input if they reduce their reliance on external inputs and increase
reliance on internal resources. Higher input systems, on the other hand, rely
more on external inputs and less on internal resources.
Lower input systems may or may not be more sustainable than higher input,
conventional farming systems. Lower input systems tend to be more resource
conserving and environmentally sound than conventional systems. For example,
lower input systems that use less synthetic chemical pesticides typically
represent lower environmentally risks than do higher input, chemical intensive
However, major reservations and questions have been raised regarding the
productivity or ability of lower input systems to support growing populations
with safe, healthful, food supplies at reasonable prices and on their
profitability and competitiveness with higher input systems (Ruttan).
Lower inputs is not an end but rather is a means to an end (Shaller).
Reducing reliance on external inputs is one means or strategy for achieving the
end or objective of greater sustainability. However, reducing inputs may or may
not be an effective means of achieving sustainability. Economic viability and
ecological soundness are both necessary, but neither alone is sufficient, in
ensuring long run sustainability.
Sustainability Reauires Survival
Sustainable farming systems must be able to survive adversity. The Rodale
Institute talks about five Ra of sustainable systems: resistance, resilience,
regeneration, re-design and replenishment (Heart). Shocks and associated threats
to survival are an inescapable aspect of the ecology and economics of
agriculture. Sustainable systems may resist, absorb, recover, adjust or be
restored, but somehow they must be able to persist under conditions of periodic
ecologic and economic adversity.
A sustainable farming system must be able to survive drought, floods, pest
outbreaks and other physical shocks to the ecological system. It also must be
able to survive short run economic losses due to periodic crop failures,
depressed markets and rising input costs that characterize the agricultural
sectors of most economies. Sustainable systems may be unprofitable at times,
possibly even for extended periods of time, but they must be able to resist or
recover from adversity.
Farming systems that are productive and profitable under favorable weather
and market conditions may be highly vulnerable to adverse physical or economic
shocks to the system. Systems that appear to be sustainable even under average
conditions may not be able to survive during adversity. Such systems may not
sustainable in the long run even though under average conditions they could be
productive and profitable.
The Issue of Sustainability
The pursuit of competitiveness and profitability has driven U.S. farmers
to greater reliance on external inputs. Competitive pressures have forced
farmers toward, greater specialization as a means to greater efficiency.
Synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides have allowed farmers to abandon
crop rotations and mixed livestock, cropping systems in favor of more specialized
cropping and specialized livestock systems. Low energy prices also allowed
economic use of larger, more specialized equipment and production facilities
which encouraged greater specialization.
Increased specialization has allowed farmers to realize economies of scale
in production, marketing and financing in their operations. Specialization has
resulted in increased efficiency of farm operators' labor and management
resources. However, specialization has meant greater reliance on synthetic
fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and other external inputs.
The trend toward greater reliance on external inputs has not been limited
to commercial fertilizers and synthetic chemical pesticides or non-renewable
energy based inputs. Specialization also has meant greater reliance on borrowed
capital and hired labor, and on more specialized knowledge and management skills
in the form of paid consultants.
Rising Costs of Snecialized Systems. Efficiency gains from specialization
have been generally recognized and widely accepted for centuries as an economic
fact of life. However, the reliance of specialized farming on greater use of
external inputs has raised significant economic as well as ecologic questions.
First, there are growing indications of declining effectiveness of the
technologies which support specialized systems.
Specialized production has increased insect pressures in areas where large
acreage of one or two crops have replaced more diversified cropping systems.
In addition, insects are becoming resistant to insecticides and require higher
rates of application or new insecticides for control. New insects sometimes
replace the old. Beneficial insects often are destroyed along with the pests
requiring even greater reliance on insecticides at higher costs. The same types
of problems are appearing for herbicides as new, more resistant weeds appear
after others are brought under control. In addition, herbicide carry over and
build up in some soils can cause problems with following crops.
Previously fertile soils in some areas have lost organic matter and natural
fertility through monocropping, conventional tillage and removal of crop
aftermath year after year. Lower organic matter has meant less ability to hold
water and nutrients in root zones meaning lower yields from a given level of
water and fertilization or higher fertilizer and irrigation costs to maintain
Other cost of increasing specialization are beginning to show up in the
environment of farm families and farm workers. Health risks in handling
pesticides, for example, have become a major issue in farm safety. These risks
eventually translate into less effective pest control, higher labor costs or
greater health risks for family members.
Chemical contamination of farm water supplies is another emerging concern
of farm families. Nitrate problems in groundwater may be attributed as much or
more to livestock waste and crop residues as to use of commercial fertilizer.
However, this issue, as much as any other, has increased the awareness of farmers
to the potential environmental hazards of chemically dependent farming.
Until recently, the environmental costs of increased use of commercial
fertilizers and synthetic pesticides were external to the farm or imposed on
society in general. The health risks to farm workers and farm families are
internal costs and thus command the immediate attention of farmers.
In short, current trends in ferriliJer anti pe-trie-iri, ,-g pm tn point -o
an increasing cost of supporting specialized farming systems., Research is
currently underway to validate or refute this hypothesis and, it valTid"-t
evaluate its significance.
The Ouestion of Resource Risks. Farmers who rely on external inputs and
specialized farming systems for their economic well being are similar in many
respects to countries, regions and communities that rely on specialization and
trade for their economic well being. They gain from greater economic efficiency
by realizing their competitive advantages. However, reliance on external inputs
embodies risks -- risk that currently profitable markets will be lost and risk
that inputs will no longer be available at reasonable costs from external
Perhaps the most graphic recent example of this type of risks was the
reliance on U.S. crop producers on export markets for wheat, corn and soybeans
during the 1970s. Many farmers borrowed large sums of money to buy additional
land and buy specialized equipment to supply these potentially profitable
Specialized farmers producing export dominated commodities were hardest
hit by the financial crisis of American agriculture in the early 1980s. They
had taken the risks associated with dependence on external inputs, including
borrowed capital, labor saving equipment, commercial fertilizers and synthetic
pesticides to produce for markets that were vulnerable to an unpredictable world
Comparative advantage is concept commonly used by economists to illustrate
potential gains from specialization and trade (Ikerd, et. al). The principles
of comparative advantage show that maximum output can be achieved at minimum cost
for a farm, a country or the World if all producers specialize in producing
things they can produce most efficiently relative to other producers.
However, few countries are willing to depend totally on any other country
for their survival. Countries sacrifice potential gains from specialization and
free trade to maintain some minimum level of economic security. Few regions,
states or communities within countries seem comfortable with employment bases
that are reliant on markets or input suppliers in places beyond their economic
control or influence.
Countries, regions and communities recognize the necessity to specialize
in order to realize their comparative advantages. The costs:of self sufficiency
are too high. However, they also are willing to sacrifice some level of economic
gain from specialization to maintain a degree of economic security.
The costs of self sufficiency in farming also are too high. Farmers will
continue to specialize to some extent and will use some external inputs.
However, highly specialized systems are risky. They may not be resistant,
resilient or regenerative and thus may not be sustainable over time.
In summary, farm policy may be required in some cases to make more
ecologically sustainable farming systems economically sustainable as well. In
some cases, research and extension of new technology may be required to develop
farming systems that are both ecologically sound and economically viable.
However, there-is-a general tendency for economic and cultural trends that
are logical at one point to progress beyond the point of logical adoption at a
later point in time. This tendency is responsible for business cycles, commodity
price cycles and cyclical social phenomena.
The trend toward input intensive, specialized farming systems may have gone
beyond it, logical point of progression. If so many farmers may have an economic
as well an ecological incentive to move toward more -austainable farming systems
even with existing technology and existing farm policies.
Sustainable Strategies for Agriculture.
The philosophical foundation of sustainability is found within the concept
of agroecology. Agroecology is a synthesis of agriculture and ecology (Altieri).
The fundamental purpose of agriculture is to enhnr. rh. produrri irt Oy nat.r
in ways that favor man relative to other species. However, for agriculture to
be sustainable, it must be compatible with its physical and social environment.
Man is seen as only one component of an essentially interrelated ecosystem.
The ecosystem includes other people and societies as well as physical resources
such as soil, water and air. Attempts to shift the balance too far in favor of
man over other species, or in favor of some people relative to others, or in
favor on one generation relative to others may destroy the critical ecological
balance and eventually destroy mankind.
Ultimately, sustainable agricultural systems must reflect the inherent
interrelationships among man and the other elements of his physical and
socioeconomic environment. Thus, the objective oi agroecology is to enhance
nature rather than replace nature, to work with nature rather than conquer
There are three basic strategies for developing more anaainable farming
systems. The first is to increase input efficiency within specialized systems,
the second is to develop more efficient diversified farming systems and the third
is to develop profitable markets for commodities that can he pr"',r"> uih fewer
Increased Input Efficiency Current environmental risks may be more a
result of misuse than of use of external inputs. ome environmentalist contend
that any use of synthetic chemicals in any amount in farming represents a
unacceptable risk to the environment. However, the general public is much more
concerned about measurable chemical residues in food and water supplies than
about the fact that synthetic chemicals are used at all.
Some ecologists content that specialized monoculture systems of farming
are inherently unsustainable (Altieri). In a long run, philosophical sense this
contention may be valid. However, the greatest current threat to sustainability
seems to stem from conventional production practices which support specialized
farming systems rather than from specialization per se.
Regardless of their longer run sustainability, -current environmental and
resource risks could be rpi--^d through more efficient use of inputs in
specialized farming systems. In fact, greater input efficiency in larger
specialized operations quite likely represents the greatest potential for
reducing environmental risk from farming over the next decade.
Increased input efficiency is possible with existing technologies.
Application rates, timing and placement of fertilizer is one area for potential
improvement in efficiency and sustainability. For example, nitrogen applied in
the right amount at the right time at the right place will be used by the plant
and will not contaminate water supplies. Wasted nitrogen contributes cost but
no returns to the economics of crop production. Thus, more efficient nitrogen
application through soil testing, tissue testing, banding and split applications
could increase the ecologic and economic sustainability of crop production
Similar possibilities for greater sustainability exists for use of
insecticides, herbicides and other pesticides even in specialized farming
operations. Pesticides applied at the right time and right place may control
pests more effectively at lower rates of application. More effective pest
control at lower levels of use reduces environmental risks and increases economic
Resource conservation also may be achieved through more efficient resource
management. For example, efficient irrigation scheduling may reduce crop stress
while cutting use of water and energy. More predictable growth may allow more
effective use of fertilizer and other inputs as well. Reduced tillage can reduce
soil loss and cut energy inputs without sacrificing profitability in many
Some intensively managed systems may use more rather than fewer external
inputs. Some reduced tillage systems may require greater use of pesticides, at
least in the short run. However, greater input efficiency means fewer inputs
per unit of output and less potential negative spill over of inputs into the
environment. Thus, net gains in sustainability may be possible through greater
input efficiency without changing basic cropping systems.
Diversified Farming Systems. The greatest long run promise for
sustainability seems to lie with a return to more diversified systems of fArmine.
Divers TIed systems are gecLai LUceded to be more ecologically sound that,
specialized systems. However, questions have been raised regarding the economics
of diversification. Diversified systems of the past were abandoned for
specialization on many farms.
Gains from specialization are undeniable but are not the only route to
greater economic efficiency. There are potential gains also from integration.
The productivity of an integrated system can be greater than the sum of the
products of the individual system components. This phenomenon is called
synergism (McNaughton). Specialized systems sacrifice the potential gains from
synergistic interaction among the various components that are possible with
An obvious example of synergism is the interaction between livestock and
crop rotations which include high quality legume forage crops. Livestock add
value to the forage and recycle nutrients back to the soil in the form or manure.
Legumes add nitrogen to the soil, break row crop pest cycles and provide feed
for the livestock.
Livestock without high quality legume pastures may not be profitable.
Legumes in rotations without livestock may not be profitable. However,
integrated livestock, legume rotation systems may add profitability to the total
farming operation. This is but one example of the potential synergistic gains
from integrated farming systems.
Risk is another important, but often overlooked, consideration in
diversification. Risks may be far greater in a specialized farming operation
than in a diversified farming system with the same basic level of uncertainty
in each system component.
For example, assume that one farmer has four enterprises and that each has
an equal chance of returning a positive $6,000 or negative $2,000 net return in
any given year. His average return is $2,000 per enterprise or $8,000 in total.
If they all are positive he will make $24,000 and if they all are negative he
will lose $8,000. But, let's assume that the enterprises are totally
uncorrelated. Net returns from each enterprise move up or down independently
of each other.
Now let's assume that another farmer specializes in one of the four
enterprises but produces four times as much of it as our first farmer. The
second farmer has the same chance of making $24,000 or losing $8,000 in any given
year as the first has of making $6,000 or losing $2,000 on that one particular
enterprise because the second farmer produces four times as much of it.
Both farmers have the same long run average or expected net return, $8,000.
However, the diversified farmer is far more certain of a positive return than
is the specialized farmer. In fact, the variability of his net returns from year
to year will be only about one-half as great for the diversified farmer as for
the specialized farmer in this case.
Risk reducing effects of diversification are even greater if enterprise
returns are negatively correlated, but will be less if they are positively
correlated. Statistically calculated variance relationships between specialized
and diversified operations vary from case to case. However, the general
relationship will hold: diversified systems yield more stable returns over time
than do specialized systems. This is the foundation for the old saying: "Don't
put all your eggs in one basket."
In summary, synergistic farming systems are made up of system components
which complement, coordinate, correlate, conserve and contribute. Such
components complement by completing nutrient and water cycles to increase
efficiency and reduce wastes. Such systems use land and labor efficiently
through coordination of activities to keep all resources fully employed without
overextending any. Low or negative correlations among farm system components
ensures -offsetting production and price risk characteristics which enhance
stability and reduce financial risks.
In addition, diversified synergistic diversified systems conserve their
resource base by combining components which address the multiple environmental
and economic objectives of sustainability rather than exploitation of resources
for unsustainable short run profits.
Markets for Low Innut Commodities. The third strategy for greater
sustainability is to find profitable markets for commodities that can be produced
with fewer external inputs. The organic food market is an example of one such
market. Organic farmers have been important advocates of more research and
information related to agricultural sustainability. Consequently, the whole
concept of lower input sustainable agriculture frequently has been identified
with organic farming. In reality, organic farming is only one example of one
strategy for agricultural sustainability.
The significance of the organic food example is related as much to organic
markets as to organic production methods. Few farmers can afford to adhere
strictly to organic standards of food production unless they receive a premium
for the commodities they produce organically.
Many farmers may be able to reduce chemical fertilizers and pesticides
significantly without sacrificing profitability. However, total elimination of
synthetic, chemical inputs typically will result in higher costs of producing
commodities for conventional markets. Organic farmers may choose their farming
systems for ecological reasons, but the market premium for organic foods provides
the necessary economic sustainability for many.
The organic food market is not the only potential market for commodities
that can be produced with fewer external inputs. Several attempts have been made
to gain consumer acceptance for beef finished on forage rather than grain. Such
beef could be produced on diversified livestock-crop farms with increased use
of forages in crop rotations. Diversified forage finished beef farms might well
be more sustainable than row crop farms or cattle feed lots. However, the key
is to success in market acceptance.
A fundamental market oriented strategy for sustainability is to avoid head-
to-head competition with large, specialized operations that produce basic,
undifferentiated commodities for price competitive markets. Success with this
strategy hinges of finding something for which consumer preference is based more
on a subjective quality such as healthfulness rather than price, something that
is not readily adaptable to large, specialized farming operations, and something
that can be readily identified with ecologically sound system of farming.
New markets may not provide sustainable farming opportunities for a lArap
pFA^ US, f farmers over the next decade. However, such markets may be
a means of survival for some who otherwise could not compete. More important,
such systems could provide insights into the types of food-farming systems that
will ultimately be required for true long run sustainability.
Toward Better Farming Systems
Sustainable farming is neither a matter of minimizing inputs nor of
maximizing profits. Neither of these approaches may result in a sustainable
system of farming. Sustainability cannot be achieved through a predefined set
of management practices or a recipe for success. The optimum balance between
ecology and economics must be derived region by region, farm by farm, crop by
crop and field by field.
Competitiveness and profitability of various systems can be changed through
public policies which regulate, penalize and reward farmers for various
conservation and environmental practices. However, changes in farmers'
management decisions may affect sustainability more than changes in farm
Farmers always have been willing to try to farm better. At different times
the term better has referred to conservation, to production and to profits. Now,
many are saying that better farming means more environmentally sound. But,
systems rhar minimi7jitAenvironment impacts may be no more sustainable than
those that mvim rt nliriOn or rnfir-
Better farming means balanced farming. Better farming means balancing
ecologic, social and economic considerations for short run survival and long run
sustainability. Most farmers can farm better than they are farming now. But,
better farming will require more research and information that is relevant to
a balanced approach to farming. Better farming will require integration of
ecology and economics into a workable, farm-level system for sustainability.
Regulations, penalties and subsidies may be required to achieve
sustainability in some cases. However. public policies that support research
and information my hi mer. important than regulatory policies in the long run.
Funding of LISA research and education programs over the past two years has been
a step in the right direction. However, the move toward better farming has
"People are more likely to change their behavior if they believe they can
change, are shown specific examples of what to do and are -given a chance to
practice their new skills so they build confidence in their ability. People need
much more than a lecture." (Bandura) This should be a guiding principle in
public policies which support of agricultural sustainability.
Zarm.rs need believable, research based information on workable, balanced
systems of farming. They need to see these systems working on research stations
and on their neighbors' farms. Farmers need decision support systems tnat wi-1
allow them to organize, evaluate, integrate, and synthesize information and
observation into systems that are sustainable on their own farms. They need much
more than a lecture.
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Berkeley, CA, 1983
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Potential for Alternative Farming Systems: Case Analysis in South Dakota,
American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 3:1, Winter 1988. pp 26-34.
Hart, Robert D., Design and Evaluation of Sustainable Agricultural Systems,
Paper presented at Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of United
Nations, Rome, Italy, July 1988.
Ikerd, John E., Bob Glover, Joe Purcell, Jim Cornelius, Keith Scearce and Par
Rosson, Finding Competitive Advantages in Agriculture, Special Publication,
ES-USDA, University of Georgia, Athens, GA. 1988.
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